Strategies That May Keep Your Brain Sharp

Cognitive aging may be slowed with several health strategies

(RxWiki News) Everybody gets older — not just the body, but also the brain. There are, however, some things you can do that may help keep your thought processes humming along despite the extra mileage.

That’s the message from a new Institute of Medicine (IOM) report that includes advice for patients who want to stay sharp into old age.

Dan G. Blazer, MD, PhD, chaired the IOM expert panel. Dr. Blazer is the JP Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke School of Medicine.

Cognition refers to mental activities: decision-making, memory, judgment and problem-solving. Cognitive aging is just what it sounds like, and it’s a normal process.

As people get older, some of the brain’s functions change. Patients might find it harder to remember some things.

"The most important thing people can do to help stay mentally sharp as they get older is to maintain a healthy lifestyle," said Michelle Papka, PhD, director of the Memory Disorders Program at the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute in Summit, NJ, in an interview with dailyRx News. "This includes maintaining overall good health and emotional well-being, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and staying actively engaged, both cognitively and socially."

Like the heart and other organs, the brain is exposed to both positive and negative demands and experiences.

For instance, smoking affects circulation everywhere in the body and can affect the blood supply to the brain. Exercise, however, can be beneficial because it increases circulation.

Many people develop habits to help them deal with cognitive aging, such as making lists to help with memory problems.

The IOM has some specific recommendations for patients that may help them maintain or even improve cognitive function as they age. The first item on the list is to be physically active.

Next, patients should manage heart disease risk factors — don’t smoke, keep blood pressure under control and manage other conditions like diabetes that may increase heart disease risks.

Some medications have side effects that can affect cognitive function. The IOM noted that patients should speak with their doctors regularly about their medications.

Lifelong learning is another way to help keep the brain sharp, Dr. Blazer and team wrote. Stay socially and intellectually engaged for better cognitive function.

Dr. Blazer and team noted that sleep is also an important factor in cognition. Patients who develop a sleep disorder should seek treatment.

Dr. Papka said communities can also help in the fight against cognitive aging.

"Communities can help by providing access to good health care and education, healthy food choices, exercise programs or venues, and outlets for cognitive stimulation and social interaction," Dr. Papka said. "This support should happen at the institutional level, such as local hospitals, doctors' offices, libraries, recreational centers, and churches/synagogues, as well as at the family and individual level."

This IOM report was released April 14 and published online in JAMA.

The McKnight Brain Research Foundation, AARP, the Retirement Research Foundation, the National Institute on Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
April 16, 2015