Losing our mental faculties, known in scientific terms as cognitive decline, is one of the biggest concerns associated with getting older. However more and more research is showing that loss of brain power is not an inevitable side-effect of aging. There is an increasing body of evidence that indicates that how we live our lives can have a substantial impact on our mental agility as we get older.
Here are some of the things that research has shown to reduce a person’s risk of cognitive decline with age.
Many studies show that getting enough sleep is important for preventing cognitive decline. A study of healthy people aged 65 and over, with good mental agility showed that daytime napping is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. However, excessive daytime sleepiness and getting less than six-and-a-half hours of sleep at night are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline.
A more recent study showed that longer sleep duration and poorer sleep quality are both associated with poorer memory in men and women aged 65 and older. These studies all support the advice that we should be getting around eight hours of sleep a night.
New studies show that increased participation in social, mental and physical activities is linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults. The research shows that the more activities we do, the slower the rate of decline becomes.
The following activities are good examples of the types of mental, social and physical leisure activities that are good for your brain:
● Mental: puzzles, games and quizzes, reading or even adding up your shopping bill in your head as you go around the supermarket.
● Social: visiting friends and family, regular phone or email conversations with people, going to the cinema or doing some volunteer work.
● Physical: gardening, housework, walking for around 30 minutes a day, or doing chair-based or sitting exercises.
Studies have found that women may be at reduced risk of cognitive decline, simply because of the activities they choose. There is little that we can do to change our gender (without drastic surgery of course) but we can be aware of the gender stereotypes and expectations that are all around us, which can affect the activities we engage in.
A study of older adults in Australia showed that there were notable gender differences in the leisure activities that people took part in. For example, women were more likely to engage in social activities, reading and volunteer work, all of which are known to slow cognitive decline. The way that cultures or societies perceive gender roles can affect people’s expectations of themselves and others. If this changes the lifestyle and leisure activities that men and women engage in, then it could well have an effect on cognitive abilities in later life.
A recent study by Coventry University revealed that having more sex is associated with better cognitive function.
Researchers recruited 28 men and 45 women, aged between 50 and 83, to take part in the study. They found that those who had sex weekly scored on average 2% higher on some cognitive tests than those who had sex monthly, and 4% higher than those who never had sex. These results were shown on tests of verbal fluency (such as naming as many animals as possible in one minute) and visuo-spatial abilities (drawing familiar objects from memory or copying complex pictures).
The association could be the result of the heightened levels of intimacy and companionship inherent in sexual relationships (that is, an increase in social contact), or there could be a purely biological explanation – where regular surges in arousal and release of sex-related hormones (such as oxytocin and dopamine) could be affecting brain function. Of course, as with the age-old nature/nurture debate, the answer could lie in a combination of the social and biological impact of sexual activity.
Get an early (in life) start
When it comes to doing things to prevent cognitive decline, it’s never too early to start. Some studies show that interventions in older adults have little effect – but that could be because the participants are already suffering from cognitive decline. Studies mapping the rate of cognitive decline in older participants who do not yet have dementia or cognitive impairment, however, show promising results.
We all experience cognitive decline as we age. This is a natural process and occurs at different rates for everybody, much like declines in physical abilities with age. But it’s time we started addressing this much earlier in life, rather than waiting till middle age or older. It’s time for us to take a lifelong approach to keeping our brains healthy as we age.
Written by Hayley Wright, Research Fellow, Coventry University. This article is republished from The Conversation.