Healthy Aging Part 10:  Cognitive Health

By Robin Bush, ISR Communications

Can your beliefs around aging today impact your cognitive abilities later in life? In her book “Breaking the Age Code,” Becca Levy, Ph.D., describes research that makes this surprising connection. In the long-running Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, it was discovered that how participants described their views on aging at the start of the study impacted their cognitive abilities 38 years later. Those who held positive age beliefs from the outset went on to experience 30% better memory scores than those with negative age beliefs. Brain scans showed that those with negative age beliefs “were much more likely to develop the telltale plaques and tangles than those with positive age beliefs. In fact, their hippocampi, the part of the brain responsible for memory, shrank three times as fast.” The study also concluded, “The beneficial impact of participants’ positive age beliefs on their memory was even greater than the influence of other factors on memory such as age, physical health, and years of education.”

This doesn’t mean you have to wait 38 years to see the cognitive benefits of a positive view toward aging. Each of us can do that at any age, starting today. It’s a key component of healthy aging. What else can we do to protect and preserve our ability to clearly think, learn, and remember? “Cognitive brain health refers to brain function such as attention, learning, memory, language, and executive function. This includes higher-order functions, like decision-making, goal setting, planning, and judgment…Studies have identified six cornerstones to any effective brain health program for improving cognitive health. These steps include eating a plant-based diet, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep. Other steps include managing stress, nurturing social contacts, and continuing to challenge your brain…Simply eating more fiber or adding a morning walk to your routine isn’t enough to forestall memory loss. Instead, exercise, diet, sleep, stress management, social interaction, and mental stimulation work in concert to yield results.” (source: EMOTIV, a neuroscience technology research company).

Will brain games and other mentally stimulating activities help you maintain cognitive health? Volunteering, learning new skills, being active, reading, games, cooking, music, theater, writing, crafts, and social groups all contribute to a sense of well-being in older adults. Still, new studies “do not find strong evidence that these types of activities have a lasting, beneficial effect on cognition. Additional research is needed, and in large numbers of diverse older adults, to be able to say definitively whether these activities may help reduce decline or maintain healthy cognition.” (Source: Cognitive Health and Older Adults | National Institute on Aging). There is some evidence that stimulation may build up a cognitive reserve that can help the brain be more adaptable and thus make it easier to compensate when age-related brain changes occur.

Efforts to determine what someone can do to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment are ongoing and critical to national health as the number of those with cognitive health issues increases. The National Institute of Health studied 3,000 participants and found that five healthy lifestyle factors may help long-term cognitive outcomes.

  • “At least 150 minutes per week of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity
  • Not smoking
  • Not drinking heavily
  • A high-quality, Mediterranean-style diet
  • Engagement in mentally stimulating activities, such as reading, writing letters, and playing games.”

The study found that “those who followed at least four of these healthy lifestyle behaviors had a 60% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Even practicing just two or three activities lowered the risk by 37%. While results from observational studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect, they point to how a combination of modifiable behaviors may mitigate Alzheimer’s risk…  Many brain training programs are marketed to the public to improve cognition. Although some of these computer or smartphone-based interventions show promise, so far there is no conclusive evidence that these applications are beneficial.” (

While the connection between brain-stimulating activities and reducing cognitive decline remains debatable, there is ample evidence that engaging in social and stimulating activities and a positive attitude about aging improves quality of life and helps us be happier and healthier.

For more on healthy aging, please see ISR’s Guide to Healthy Aging on our blog at

Note: If you or a loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, it is important to consult with your doctor.