Cognitive Health and Older Adults
Cognitive health—the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember—is an important component of brain health. Others include:
- Motor function—how well you make and control movements
- Emotional function—how well you interpret and respond to emotions
- Sensory function—how well you feel and respond to sensations of touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature
This guide focuses on cognitive health and what you can do to help maintain it. The following steps can help you function every day and stay independent—and they have been linked to cognitive health, too.
- Take Care of Your Health
- Eat Healthy Foods
- Be Physically Active
- Keep Your Mind Active
- Stay Connected
Taking care of your physical health may help your cognitive health. You can:
- Get recommended health screenings.
- Manage chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and high cholesterol.
- Consult with your healthcare provider about the medicines you take and possible side effects on memory, sleep, and brain function.
- Reduce risk for brain injuries due to falls and other accidents.
- Limit use of alcohol (some medicines can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol).
- Quit smoking, if you smoke.
- Get enough sleep, generally 7-8 hours each night.
In general, a healthy diet consists of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; lean meats, fish, and poultry; and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. You should also limit solid fats, sugar, and salt. Be sure to control portion sizes and drink enough water and other fluids.
Researchers are looking at whether a healthy diet can help preserve cognitive function or reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. For example, there is some evidence that people who eat a "Mediterranean diet" have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
Researchers have developed and are testing another diet, called MIND, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. One study suggests that MIND may affect the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Get more information about healthy eating for older adults.
Being physically active—through regular exercise, household chores, or other activities—has many benefits. It can help you:
- Keep and improve your strength
- Have more energy
- Improve your balance
- Prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases
- Perk up your mood and reduce depression
Studies link ongoing physical activity with benefits for the brain, too. In one study, exercise stimulated the human brain's ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to cognitive health. Other studies have shown that exercise increased the size of a brain structure important to memory and learning, improving spatial memory.
Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is thought to be more beneficial to cognitive health than non-aerobic stretching and toning exercise. Studies are ongoing.
Federal guidelines recommend that all adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Aim to move about 30 minutes on most days. Walking is a good start. You can also join programs that teach you to move safely and prevent falls, which can lead to brain and other injuries. Check with your healthcare provider if you haven't been active and want to start a vigorous exercise program.
For more information, see Go4Life®, NIA's exercise and physical activity campaign for older adults.
Being intellectually engaged may benefit the brain. People who engage in meaningful activities, like volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier. Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability, too. For example, one study found that older adults who learned quilting or digital photography had more memory improvement than those who only socialized or did less cognitively demanding activities.
Lots of activities can keep your mind active. For example, read books and magazines. Play games. Take or teach a class. Learn a new skill or hobby. Work or volunteer. These types of mentally stimulating activities have not been proven to prevent serious cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease, but they can be fun!
Scientists think that such activities may protect the brain by establishing "cognitive reserve." They may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions, so it can compensate for age–related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.
Formal cognitive training also seems to have benefits. In the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, healthy adults 65 and older participated in 10 sessions of memory training, reasoning training, or processing–speed training. The sessions improved participants' mental skills in the area in which they were trained. Most of these improvements persisted 10 years after the training was completed.
Be wary of claims that playing certain computer and online games can improve your memory and other types of thinking. Evidence to back up such claims is evolving. NIA and others are supporting research to determine if different types of cognitive training have lasting effects.
For more information, see Participating in Activities You Enjoy.
Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated and more engaged with the world around you. Participating in social activities may lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being.
So, visit with family and friends. Join programs through your Area Agency on Aging, senior center, or other community organizations.
We don't know for sure yet if any of these actions can prevent or delay Alzheimer's disease and age–related cognitive decline. But some of them have been associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.
Updated: July 22, 2017