Identifying the risk factors for cognitive decline as we grow older is among the greatest health challenges researchers face today. Cognitive skills, which include awareness, information handling, reasoning and memory, are necessary to carry out tasks from the most menial to the most difficult. As the average lifespan continues to increase, we may all experience a certain amount of cognitive decline as a normal part of aging. Yet some will experience severe deterioration in cognitive skills leading to dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. In order to live independently and carry out normal everyday activities, we must maintain our ability to reason, our memory, our processing speed and our ability to function.
It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. As the population ages, the disease will impact a greater percentage of Americans. However, according to the Alzheimer’s Disease and Research Center at Emory University, it is not inevitable that we will lose all cognitive abilities as we age. They also found that interventions may slow some of the changes that do occur. Many people age with little cognitive decline. For some, mild cognitive impairment, such as some memory loss, occurs but does not affect or prevent performance of daily activities. For others, severe cognitive deficits prevent the ability to live independently.
What is considered a normal amount of cognitive decline?
- Knowledge experienced over time or “crystallized” intelligence remains stable as we age. “Fluid” intelligence, not based on experience or education, tends to decline.
- Remote memory, stored for many years, remains relatively intact. Recent memory or the formation of new memories is more likely to be affected.
- Simple focused attention tends to be preserved. Divided attention or multitasking tends to be more difficult.
- Language and verbal abilities also tend to be preserved with aging. Word retrieval, such as the names of people or things, tends to become more difficult. The “it’s right on the tip-of-the-tongue” state tends to occur more often.
- Traditional reasoning and problem solving are maintained. New problems or those not encountered before may take more think time to resolve.
- Processing speed, both cognitive and motor, is affected with aging. Certain activities or tasks may take longer to perform.
Research has begun to identify some traits that can lead to the development of cognitive disease such as a prior head injury and gene mutations. Research also shows that higher education levels and antioxidant intake appear to reduce the probability of disease. According to a study by Group Health-University of Washington published in the New England Journal of Medicine, high blood sugar levels have been associated with an 18% increased risk for developing dementia even in those who do not have diabetes. Dementia risk in people with diabetes, whose blood sugar levels are generally elevated, can be as much as 40% higher.
Largely preventable age related diseases and conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and vascular disease may increase the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. If you needed one more good reason to actively work to reduce your risk factors for age related chronic diseases through healthy lifestyle habits, this is it. Modifiable risk factors include:
- Vascular risk factors – Hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and physical inactivity are all associated with increased risk of dementia. Exercising and maintaining a healthy weight, and working to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels will improve your physical health and may support your cognitive health.
- Healthy diet – Antioxidant nutrients, vitamins B6 and B12, folic acid and a higher intake of essential fatty acids have all been linked to a lower risk of dementia. A nutritious diet is known to help maintain overall good health. A diet rich in antioxidant fruits and vegetables and good fats, low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, and devoid of processed convenience foods may be neuroprotective.
- Psychological factors – Education, learning, social participation and intellectual activities are all healthy and modifiable lifestyle factors that could aid in the prevention of cognitive decline. Actively performing new and challenging tasks can protect against age-related decline. Research shows that those who are bilingual have 4.5 year delayed onset of dementia and that learning a new language may offer cognitive protection.
- Physical activity – Exercise increases blood supply to the brain and may increase the connections between nerve cells. Research shows that exercise raises the level of a nerve growth factor and can stimulate the brain’s ability to maintain old network connections. Aerobic physical activities that improve cardio-respiratory fitness have been shown to enhance cognitive performance in previously sedentary adults. Research has shown that high stress levels can impair learning and memory. Reduction of stress through exercise has been shown to be beneficial.
Supplements for healthy cognitive aging include:Ultra Anti-Oxidant (7470) by Douglas Laboratories provides potent, wide spectrum nutritional antioxidants including pycnogenol, vitamins C and E, and B complex. AntiOxidant Formula by Pure Encapsulations offers synergistic broad spectrum antioxidant nutrients designed to promote cellular health and support the body’s natural defense mechanisms against free radicals. Acetyl L-Carnitine by Ortho Molecular has been shown to beneficially affect cardiac function and to provide cognitive benefits to those with age-related dementia. Complete B Complex by Life Extensions provides a balanced amount of all B vitamins that are crucial for metabolic activities and optimal organ system function.