10 Things to Keep Older Adults Mentally Sharp

August 30, 2018 | Blog | Reading Time 7:00 Minutes

Having a sharp mind is important at any age, but aging causes changes in the brain that can dull thinking. The human brain shrinks with age, for example, and with this shrinkage comes some loss of cognitive ability. This means brain shrinkage can interfere with memory and mental sharpness. Other processes, such as fatigue and effects from medications can also lead to “brain fog” that older adults sometimes experience.

Certain areas of thinking do show signs of decline with aging, according to the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory University, while other areas of thinking remain stable. A person’s crystallized intelligence, which is the experience or knowledge accumulated over time, remains stable with age. Attention, language, problem solving and reasoning also remain the same. Old memories are also relatively stable with age, but new memories are more vulnerable to aging. The speed at which the brain processes information also slows down with age.

Certain factors can affect cognitive health in aging adults. Medications can cause drowsiness, for example. Sensory changes, such as the loss of sight or hearing, can also interfere with the way the human brain processes information. Pain and other health problems can distract the brain that can affect concentration and processing speed. Depression, anxiety and other changes in mood can alter a person’s interest in staying mentally sharp and can interfere with the brain’s ability to learn new information and apply problem-solving strategies to mentally-challenging situations.

Age-related mental fogginess can be mildly aggravating or a serious problem, depending on the severity. Anyone can lose his or her car keys, for example, but memory loss becomes a serious problem when you cannot remember where you live. Some memory problems, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, can cause serious issues.

For those who don’t suffer from serious memory problems, steps can be taken to stay mentally sharp as they age. Here are the top ten tips for staying mentally sharp as you grow older.

Top Ten Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp as You Age

1. Exercise

A new study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, supports the theory that improving fitness can improve brain health and slow down the aging process. They studied the association between exercise and the brain’s white matter, which is light-colored tissue of the brain and spinal cord that delivers messages between nerve cells. Disease of the white matter can cause memory problems. The researchers linked higher levels of fitness with better integrity of the white matter and better performance on the memory and thinking tests.

Other studies support these findings. One study, for example, shows that walking 4,000 steps each day can boost brain function, while researchers in another study explore the benefits of exercising to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

2. Read and learn

Harvard Medical School associates a higher level of learning with better mental functioning in old age. These experts believe that advanced education gets a person into the habit of being mentally active, which helps keep memory strong. Mental exercise through learning activates processes that keep brain cells healthy and stimulates communication between these cells.

Reading provides new information for you to absorb, which can keep the brain active, but research shows that the very act of reading can build connections in the brain that help keep you mentally sharp. These connections can also keep your brain more versatile.

3. Eat nutritious food

Certain foods can boost brain health and memory. These foods include fatty fish, coffee, blueberries, turmeric, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate and nuts. Many of these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids, which the body uses to build brain and nerve cells. These fats are also critical to memory and may slow age-related mental decline.

Other foods deliver anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects to ward off inflammation and oxidative stress that can contribute to brain aging. Coffee and chocolate contain caffeine, which can increase alertness and sharpen concentration.

4. Manage stress

Stress can cause a rise in cortisol, which is a hormone that can damage the brain over time and lead to memory problems not related to dementia or age-related memory loss, according to Harvard.

Throughout the day, take time for yourself to pause and reflect. Something as simple as taking a quick walk, or enjoying your favorite book, can be an easy way to reset. According to The American Institute of Stress, knitting or sewing are also great hobbies that help reduce stress.

5. Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential for keeping the aging brain sharp, according to Helpguide.org. As you sleep, your brain forms and stores new memories. Poor sleep interferes with the development of nerve cells to cause problems with memory, concentration and decision-making. Sleep can help flush stress hormones from the body to improve mental sharpness in older adults.

Be aware that certain medications, including sleeping pills, can affect memory and brain function. Other medications that can affect memory and brain function include antihistamines, blood pressure and arthritis drugs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, medications for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal discomfort, and painkillers.

6. Quit smoking

Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen-rich blood reaching the brain. Without oxygen, the brain cannot function properly. Smoking can also raise your blood pressure and cause other conditions that can affect your mental sharpness. If you are trying to quit smoking, there are resources to help.

The Centers for Disease Control offers a variety of resources to help you stop smoking, including free quit coaching and educational materials. Other beneficial resources include smokefree.gov and betobaccofree.gov.

7. Stay social

Medical professionals have long maintained that social interaction can protect memory. The results of a new study from Ohio State University in Columbus support that theory.

“Our research suggests that merely having a larger social network can positively influence the aging brain, “explains the lead author in a press release.

If you’re looking for ways to stay social, consider joining a group of individuals who have similar interests as you, such as a book club, movie club or knitting group. Invite family or friends to grab a cup of coffee or take on a new hobby that has always interested you. Making simple changes to your social life will have a positive impact for years to come.

8. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Certain lifestyle factors can hasten mental decline, according to a study by researchers at University of California, Davis. These brain-shrinking factors were high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking and being overweight or obese.

Speak with a health professional about lowering your blood pressure, reducing your risk for diabetes or lowering your blood sugar, quitting smoking or losing weight to improve your mental sharpness as you age.

Other conditions can lead to age-related memory problems, according to the American Psychological Association. These conditions include anxiety, dehydration, depression, infections, substance abuse and thyroid imbalance. Keeping these conditions under control can help older adults stay physically fit and mentally sharp.

9. Use all your senses

Sights, sounds and smells can all evoke strong memories. In fact, information gained through your senses is essential for memory. The link between memory and the sense of smell is especially strong – perhaps stronger than the link between memory and your other senses. The odor of a home-cooked meal can bring up memories of holiday dinners with the family, for example.

You’d be surprised how many activities involve your senses. Go outside and blow bubbles on a beautiful day, brew a new type of tea or take time for yourself and paint a picture. All of these activities can stimulate your senses and help keep your memory sharp.

10. Live in a stimulating environment

According to a study by Colorado State University, a stimulating living environment has positive benefits on aging adults. Things to consider when looking for a stimulating senior living community include:

  • Environments with amenities and services that support mental sharpness and invite residents to use their senses
  • Residences that offer a variety of programs and places to learn, like libraries
  • Communities that offer on-site gym therapy to help people stay mentally sharp through physical activity
  • Gathering places, such as pubs, parlors, fireplaces and porches to provide opportunities to socialize

For more tips on staying mentally sharp with aging, or to learn more about living in an environment that provides all the amenities and services you need to stay mentally sharp, contact The Brielle at Seaview, a vibrant assisted living and memory care community in Staten Island.