What if I told you that everything you think you know about the aging process, cognitive ability and your brain is flawed?
What if I told you that your mind can get stronger as you get older?
It’s important for people to understand that aging doesn’t necessarily mean you will find yourself submerged in ever increasing “senior moments”. You don’t have to sit idly by and accept that your cognitive ability will wither with time.
There is so much that’s within your control, and I am going to show you have you can take charge of your aging mind.
I’ve watched as the ravages Alzheimer’s and Dementia have eroded the lives of friends and family members. These diseases are debilitating and heartbreaking.
That being said, there are things you can do today to help mitigate and prevent the toll aging takes on your brain.
Cognitive Ability Can Improve As You Age: 5 Stages of Brain Development
Cognitive Ability: Gestation (0 – 10 months)
The magic of birth and creation of life, this is the period when neurons and other connections grow.
Did you know that this is a pivotal moment for brain development? Proper nutrition and prevention of stress are integral to creating an environment where the brain can reach its potential.
Cognitive Ability: Childhood (Birth – 6 years old)
As you can imagine this is the stage when a child develops their ability to talk, communicate, crawl and walk.
Up until this point there is no sense of self, but experiences start to change this state.
The frontal lobe is also developing which means that emotional attachments are made and a child can perceive their circumstances, plan and remember events.
Cognitive Ability: Adolescence & Young Adulthood (7 - 22 years old)
The “wiring” of your brain continues during this stage.
White matter, which is the fatty tissue that surrounds neurons is building which speeds up processing and stabilizes connections.
Unfortunately, the decision-making center, the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop so impulsivity must be navigated.
Cognitive Ability: Adulthood (23 – 65 years old)
Peak brain development is reached at 22 and lasts until you are 27.
The areas dealing with executive function, the prefrontal and temporal cortices develop last and deteriorate first.
Later in this stage of brain development, you may experience a decline in your memory and processing speed.
Cognitive Ability: Old Age (65 years old +)
Diminishing brain cells in the hippocampus and other important areas of the brain result in a decrease in memory and processing speed.
This results in what most of us view as the “old age” experience
That being said, there is a lot you can do to strengthen the brain and prevent this type of deterioration.
So while you do lose some of your cognitive ability as you age, your brain can change and grow until the day you die.
Which means this is not the end of the story.....
The concept of neuroplasticity clearly shows that your brain is always changing and growing. Neurogenesis is the process that occurs when your brain creates new neurons and connections over your lifetime. Thankfully this process doesn’t cease just because you’re aging.
That’s not to say that there aren’t optimal periods for brain development:
- Processing Speed: Is at its best in your teens
- Working Memory: Peaks in your 20’s and 30’s
- Social Cognition: Peaks in your 40’s
- Vocabulary: Is at its best in your 60’s and early 70’s
As you can see there is consensus that neural deterioration is age related.
BUT and this is a BIG but...
Your brain has the capacity to increase neural activity throughout your lifetime, which in turn develops neural scaffolding that helps to regulate cognitive function.
The Scaffolding Theory of Cognitive Aging (STCA) reveals that although there is some undeniable age-related decline, your brain also preserves and reinforces selective cognitive abilities as you grow older.
In other words, while there is some degeneration in the hippocampus and occipital areas, there are increases in frontal functional engagement that correlate with older people.
Now that’s good news!
This finding upends the theory that your brain simply deteriorates with age.
And the most exciting part is, you can increase neural volume through very simple cognitive training exercises. There’s absolutely no reason to accept cognitive decline in your older years. In fact, you can strengthen and IMPROVE your mental abilities throughout your life.
Studies have shown that those who remain engaged in their environment and practice skills that require sustained cognitive abilities fare better in their old age.
Now this brings us to the fun part!
What Can YOU Do To IMPROVE Cognitive Ability As You Age?
In a nutshell, LOTS!
Here are a few exercises and lifestyle recommendations:
Get Involved in Your Community
People who are engaged with their families and local surroundings do better than those who remain isolated. There is a lot of truth to the saying, “Use it or lose it!”. Human connection truly is one of the greatest gifts on earth. If you feel alone, reach out. It’s some of the best medicine around.
Multiple studies have shown a connection between physical activity and a healthy mind. One of my favorite is the Nurse’s Health Study. “Computed energy expenditures for reported activities of 70 - 81-year-olds were regressed on cognitive measures over time. Those reporting highest levels of activity had a 20% risk reduction."
Yep. Stress takes a terrible toll on your cognitive abilities. Lack of sleep, anxiety and fear decrease neurogenesis and increase cell death and production of oxidative free radicals. One of the best things you can do to alleviate stress is to take up a mindful activity – such as meditation or even knitting! These activities lower cortisol and increase grey matter.
Get Good Food in Your Body
“You are what you eat!” Truer words have never been spoken. If you want your brain to be in good shape as you age be sure to eat lots of fruit, vegetables and healthy protein. You also need to be aware of the importance of super foods such as salmon and walnuts which contain DHA. People who consume a diet rich in DHA are said to suffer less from depression. Phytonutrients are also very important. You can find them in berries and cruciferous vegetables which have brain boosting and anti-inflammatory qualities. Green tea, dark chocolate and gingko leaves are rich in flavonoids which are also brain boosting superfoods.
The truth is there’s a very good reason why we’ve historically respected the advice and thoughts of our elders. Many of them have developed highly evolved thought processes that outstrip younger brains.
While there is some deterioration in cognitive abilities, there are other areas that continue to grow and expand. With the right approach, we can finely tune our minds to be stronger in our 50s, 60’s and 70s than they were in our 20’s.
The beauty of neuroplasticity is that we can stave off “senior” moments, to live a happier and more fulfilled lives. So don’t fear getting older. Embrace it!
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