Slowing Down Cognitive Decline
Being able to formulate different concepts, to think abstractly, and to be mentally flexible are all cognitive functions known as executive functions. They all decline as your years go by, especially after you reach 70 (1).
All these functions are critically dependent on the prefrontal cortex (front parts of the brain), the very same area that demonstrates prominent shrinkage with age (1, 2).
Fortunately, your brain is wonderfully plastic and can compensate for these losses, especially with appropriate training.
1. Musical Training
Researchers have found that adults and children with musical training performed better in prefrontal cortex - associated tasks compared to non-musicians.
Musical training in this trial encompassed those who continuously played instruments for at least 5 years (3). This link could also explain why those with musical training tended to do better academically.
2. Brain Training
Brain training can also help, regardless of how old you are.
A commercially available game called Brain Age, created by Nintendo, improved executive function and processing speed in 70-year-old participants after just one month of twenty 15-minute-long sessions (4).
The same game played for the same amount of time yielded similar improvements in young adults aged about 20 years old (5).
3. Bilingualism and language learning
Have you ever marveled at how seamlessly language translators are able to switch back and forth between (sometimes wildly different) languages?
Bilinguals would need to mentally select the appropriate language while suppressing irrelevant information.
Imagine doing this constantly, and in the case of translators, at a blinding pace. It comes as no surprise that bilingualism has been thought to lead to a more robust, efficient, and resilient executive function system.
Being bilingual is thought to help offset age-related cognitive decline and may even protect against dementia. The onset of dementia was noted to be delayed by 4 years in a study cohort of elderly monolingual and bilingual adults (6).
Interestingly, those who acquired a second language later in life may have more cognitive advantages, as it doesn’t feel as ‘natural’ to an adult learner.
Researchers postulate that stronger mental inhibitory systems may be at play in adults who pick up a second language (7). See? Not too late to dust off the old French textbook.
Besides flexing your mental muscles, exercise is a great way to improve executive function (in addition to many other cognitive functions).
Over 500 adults aged 70 and older who reported themselves to be more physically active did better in tasks examining executive control (8).
Older adults that were fitter tended to have denser frontal parts of the brain—which indicates that working out preserves executive function (8).
Could bending over backwards help solve your problems? Research says yes.
Yoga has been proven to improve executive functioning by reducing stress levels (11).
Older, otherwise sedentary adults aged about 60 who underwent 8 weeks of regular Hatha yoga training had improved scores in executive function tests.
Researchers believe that this could be due to lowered stress levels, as participants reported feeling less stressed and had lower levels of stress hormones.
Bear in mind that this effect was only seen in those doing proper yoga, and not in the control group which only performed stretching-strengthening exercises.
5. Tight-knit community of friends and family
Growing old with a tight-knit community of friends and family may do more than warming your heart.
Involving yourself in social activities and having good social support have been found to lower mortality outcomes almost as much as exercise does, and are associated with maintained cognitive function (12).
6. Mediterranean Diet
Nutritional factors play a large role in protecting the integrity of our executive functions. The Mediterranean diet has been demonstrated to enhance this cognitive skill set.
Adults aged between 55-80 years who followed the Mediterranean diet supplemented with 1 liter of olive oil a week for an average of 4 years showed improvements in frontal cognitive skills, including executive function (13).
Nuts, whole grains, and healthy fats such as olive oil form the basis of the Mediterranean diet. Those foods that are rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties may protect the brain from cognitive decline.
While the above 6 ways to mitigate aging are important. There are plenty other tips, tricks, and methods to combat aging and improve your mental performance. If you’re interested in receiving them in your inbox, sign-up below!
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