Why Cognitive Decline Needn’t Be Inevitable

Nearly 6 million Americans—and 1 in 9 people over age 65—have Alzheimer’s disease, the best-known and most dreaded form of dementia. But Alzheimer’s isn’t the only cause of memory, reasoning, or concentration difficulties in senior adults. Vitamin deficiency, hormonal imbalances, medication side effects, and a host of physical and mental illnesses have all been implicated.

older adult female talking on phone

Whatever the cause, senior cognitive decline is common enough that many people assume, “Nobody’s brain works too well at that age.” Such an idea is not only mistaken but dangerous. Many serious illnesses have gone undiagnosed and untreated for months, simply because even doctors dismissed behavioral symptoms as “normal for that age.”

With or without other health concerns, resigning oneself to cognitive decline builds habits of anxiety, depression, self-isolation, and unhealthy self-soothing behavior—the very factors most likely to heighten risk of significant cognitive impairment. Don’t give up in advance, even if both your parents had early-onset Alzheimer’s. Some risk factors can’t be altered, but many can.

Strengthen Your Body to Strengthen Your Brain

Mind and body are more unity than separate entities: what affects one affects the other, at any age. Even a twenty-four-year-old executive makes decisions faster and more effectively after a good night’s sleep.

If you’re already practicing the following health habits, keep them up even if you have to modify them for new limitations. If you don’t have these habits already, it’s never too late to start: consult your doctor about planning a program that suits your needs and abilities.

  • Know your ideal weight range and stay within it: being overweight or underweight is most likely to cause serious health issues now.
  • Eat healthy: fresh salads, whole grains, fish, beans—and limited amounts of red meats and desserts. If you’re typical, you’ll also need smaller helpings than in your younger years. (On the plus side, you pay lower “senior” prices for restaurant meals.)
  • Get your full share of sleep every night, and don’t worry if you’re waking more often than your former “normal”: it’s natural for sleep patterns to change with the decades. If you have real difficulties, a sleep app or an online search for “sleep hygiene tips” can help; and if your sleep still doesn’t improve, see a doctor. There may be an underlying medical cause that needs treating.
  • Keep up routine medical checkups, and keep your vaccinations up to date.
  • Be very careful with prescription meds: going outside the instructions even “a little” can lead to drug addiction and other major health problems. If a medication doesn’t seem to be doing its job, consult your prescribing doctor; and if you struggle to remember what to take when, ask about tools (the Medisafe Medication Management app is one) to help you stay on track. As backup, ask a family member or friend to keep an eye on you.
  • Stay active. If you have movement disabilities that limit options for “real” exercise, a doctor or coach can help you find ways to make the best of what you have.
  • Even if your outdoor space is limited to an apartment balcony, get a taste of natural air and greenery every day.

Exercising Your Mind and Spirit

The brain, like the body, needs to be used to maintain peak function. You’re on the right track if you already have a mind-exercising hobby like reading or crossword puzzles. Even better, seek out regular opportunities for new ways of using your brain (e.g., an art class if you’ve always been a “left-brained” person). The brain, like the body, stays young longer when it’s regularly stretched and flexed.

Try to enjoy some regular activities with other people, which increases exposure to new ideas and builds human relationships—another element in reduced cognitive-decline risk. While we’re on the subject of relationships: don’t fall into the “my children never call or visit” self-pity trap. Almost always, they do care, but you’ve forgotten how insanely busy life can be at that age. If you’re lonely, you reach out: make a call, invite someone to lunch, or even write an old-style snail mail letter.

Healthy human relationships also thrive on positive attitudes: even your closest loved ones may be reluctant to call if they anticipate two hours of hearing how nothing ever goes right for you. For the sake of your relationships and your overall mental and physical health, make a habit of talking about your blessings and offering encouragement to others. Increase your personal optimism levels by seeking inspirational input, staying busy with meaningful projects, and praying and/or meditating regularly.

And If I Still Get Cognitive Decline?

Admittedly, when all is said and done, there is no 100 percent guarantee against being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another cognitive-decline problem. There are always “only God knows why” cases where one person has every reason to develop a problem and doesn’t, while someone else does everything right and yet experiences the worst-case scenario. Consult a doctor if you or anyone in your family have symptoms like the following:

  • Forgetting things and not being able to recall them even under memory-jogging circumstances (e.g., you find your missing keys but still have no idea how they could have gotten where they turned up, and you even find it hard to believe family members who saw you leave the keys there)
  • Forgetting how to do things that for years were automatic routine
  • “Wandering”—finding yourself somewhere without remembering how you got there, and without having told anybody about plans to go anywhere
  • Losing control of emotions, especially if mood swings are drastically out of character for you

If you do receive a dreaded diagnosis, you don’t have to despair or become bitter. Positive attitude and the other points above can still hold off major decline. And while there is as yet no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are ways to manage it. Since Alzheimer’s is a subject of intense medical research, you might even volunteer for a clinical trial—and get more consistent (and perhaps more effective) treatment as a bonus.

And if you haven’t been diagnosed but one or more close relatives have had Alzheimer’s, consider making an advance plan in case it happens to you—not out of fatalism, but as a reasonable precaution and a way of making the best decisions in low-stress circumstances. Whether or not you ever experience cognitive decline, use your full faculties now to ensure your best future later!

See also: BridgingApps recommendations for dementia-related aids

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