What are cognitive functions
First, a quick brain lesson. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines cognitive processes as “any of the mental functions assumed to be involved in the acquisition, storage, interpretation, manipulation, transformation, and use of knowledge.” Basically, cognitive functions are how we think and use our brains. They involve processes like attention, perception, learning, and problem-solving.
Unfortunately, most of our cognitive abilities do not age like a fine wine. According to the University of California San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences, our thinking abilities are at their best around age 30 and then they begin to decline there. But, fear not: some cognitive decline is expected and considered a normal part of the aging process, including short-term memory loss, slower thinking, and the inability to multitask. The reason for the decline is structural. “Our brains shrink or atrophy slowly over time, primarily in the white matter, where connections between brain areas are located,” explains board-certified neurologist Ethan Russo, MD. The more connections lost, the more cognition lost.
What happens to cognition as we age
It’s not all bad news for our aging brains. A recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour looked at three cognitive functions—alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition—and reveals some good news. Alerting, as the name suggests, refers to being ready to receive some kind of stimuli or information. Orienting is how you move information around in different areas of the brain and shift your attention. And executive inhibition is the ability to control your attention so you can focus on what’s important.
One of the study authors, João Veríssimo, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, gives an example of how these functions play out in real life. He explained that when you are driving your car, “alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection; orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian; and executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving."
The study observed 702 participants between the ages of 58 – 98 and found that while alerting decreased with age, orienting and executive inhibition actually increased until at least the mid-to-late 70s. It’s an example of time being on the brain’s side. “Certain information becomes resistant to degradation because of its interconnectivity over time, often referred to as ‘crystallized’ intelligence,” says Rhonna Shatz, MD, double board-certified in neurology and behavioral neurology, the Director of the Cognitive Disorders Clinic and the Bob and Sandy Heimann Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Education at UC Health. “It is possible that executive inhibition improves with age because of high interconnectivity with regions frequently activated in executive function inhibition.”
Simply put, Dr. Russo says that cognition is often a “use it or lose it proposition.” He says it’s all about keeping your mind active and challenged so the connections in your brain stay strong. And you should also create new connections. “Exposure to a wide variety of new and different topics, experiences, and activities has evidence for building cognitive reserve,” says Dr. Shatz. According to Harvard Health, the greater your cognitive reserve, the better you’re able to avoid the unwanted consequences of an aging brain.
Here’s how to keep your brain healthy
But keeping your brain young is not just about learning and doing new things. Your lifestyle also impacts how your brain ages. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are seven ways to keep your brain healthy as you age.
1. Be a lifelong learner. No matter what your job status is, continue to test your brain and learn new things.
2. Be social. Social activities challenge you to communicate and engage with other people, which stimulates your brain and prevents cognitive decline.
3. Exercise. It is unclear whether physical exercise increases cognitive function directly or if the improvement is because exercise helps with your mood and stress. Either way, exercise ultimately helps your brain.
4. Manage stress. Remember how Dr. Russo said cognitive decline is from atrophy of the brain? Well, chronic stress can accelerate that shrinking process.
5. Sleep. Getting enough quality sleep is critical for brain health at every stage of life.
6. Keep your heart healthy. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease—high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, high blood sugar, and obesity—are also risk factors for cognitive decline.
7. Don’t drink too much. Moderate alcohol consumption may help protect your brain from cognitive decline, but it’s a slippery slope. Drinking too much too often will result in decreased cognitive performance.
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