A new study challenges the long-held belief that cognitive decline is an inevitable part of aging. Danish researchers found that people in their 90s today are much more likely to stay mentally sharp than the old folks of a decade earlier.
“This study is great news because it shows people have more control than they realize when it comes to retaining their mental abilities over time,” said Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program.
Scientists compared the capabilities of study participants born in 1915 with those of people born a decade earlier. They found that today’s nonagenarians were more than a third more likely to reach the age of 95 with better mental and daily functioning abilities than their predecessors. The researchers attributed the difference to improved nutrition, vaccinations, healthcare, and intellectual stimulation, they wrote in the journal The Lancet.
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“These results are consistent with another study that found that as you get older you tend to keep a healthier lifestyle. Perhaps it is because people with unhealthy lifestyles don’t live that long, but it’s also because people tend to realize that a healthy lifestyle can protect both your body and your mind,” said Dr. Small, author of The Mind Health Report newsletter.
“People used to think how you aged had to do with the genetics that you inherited from your parents, but this finding is consistent with the study I just did that shows that lifestyle is probably more important to brain health as you age,” he added.
For his study, Dr. Small’s UCLA team joined with the Gallup organization in polling 18,552 U.S. adults 18 and older. The findings showed that healthy eating, not smoking, and exercising regularly is linked to better self-perceived memory abilities. Respondents across all age groups who engaged in just one healthy behavior were 21 percent less likely to report memory problems than those who didn't engage in such behaviors.
Dr. Small said both studies show that focusing on certain behavior leads to better brain health:
Mental exercise and stimulation: Do anything that’s stimulating and engaging, such as reading, taking courses, playing games, learning a new language, and doing crossword and other puzzles. Certain computer games are specially designed to boost memory.
Physical conditioning: Jog, walk briskly, play tennis, or do any other physical activities that make the heart work. This increases blood flow to the brain. One recent study shows that walking briskly 90 minutes a week staves off Alzheimer’s disease.
Diet: Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables to get antioxidants. Eat cold-water fish, nuts, and flax seeds to get brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids. Minimize refined sugar and processed foods.
Stress Management: Chronic stress can shrink memory centers in the brain. Find stress-reducing activities that work for you. Examples include anything that is relaxing, including meditation, yoga, breathing exercise, singing, or walking.
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