Memory loss has long been accepted as a normal part of aging. But what if we could slow the progression of cognitive decline through lifestyle factors like diet and exercise?
A growing body of research suggests that what we eat and how often we move play a major role not only in mental acuity, but in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other age-related brain disorders. Taking brain health into your own hands may boost your mental acuity while helping you live better for longer. Here’s a look at the promising research showing what it takes to stay sharp.
What Is Mental Acuity?
Mental acuity comprises a person’s ability to reason, focus, and recall information at optimum speeds. Losing mental acuity, or sharpness of the mind, is often referred to as cognitive decline — the key mental change associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, and other brain and age-related disorders.
The reason why sharpness of the mind is so important is because it determines our ability to move through the world safely and effectively. When we can remember what we’re doing and stay present in the moment, we’re more equipped to get our needs met without encountering conflict.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Cognitive decline can still occur even without the presence of a disease like Alzheimers. This is often referred to as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). While there’s no single cause, the risk for mild cognitive impairment increases after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It can also occur as a side effect to certain medications, or in association with depression, anxiety, or sleep deprivation.
Signs that you’re experiencing MCI include struggles with remembering, planning, or following instructions. This decline in mental acuity may also make it harder to make important decisions. Since it can be hard to know when your memory is declining, many people rely on family and friends to explain changes in memory to both the patient and their doctor.
More patients with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop Alzheimer’s than those without it. “About 8 of every 10 people who fit the definition of amnestic MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease within 7 years,” says the National Institute on Aging.
In contrast, about 1-3% of people above 65 will develop Alzheimer’s each year. This suggests that preventing or mitigating MCI may help delay the onset of age-related brain disorders.
On its own, cognitive decline isn’t life-threatening. One of the core differentiators between mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s is that MCI doesn’t have a major impact on a person’s daily functioning. While Alzheimer’s progressive degeneration makes it hard to maintain a normal life, those with MCI can maintain an independent life through the adoption of healthy habits, which may help reverse early stages of cognitive decline.
Aside from memory loss, telltale signs of Alzheimer’s include changes to personality and behavior. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients may also struggle with balance, muscle stiffness, fatigue, and sleep disorders.
This loss of mental acuity and physical functioning, coupled with the presence of abnormal protein clusters and tangles, signifies nerve cell death and tissue loss in the brain. As these changes progress, they cause brain cell degeneration in different areas of the brain responsible for thinking, planning, learning, and memory. Alzheimer’s patients lose their ability to communicate, reason, and recognize loved ones as the brain continues to shrink.
While many people are aware of the mental changes associated with Alzheimer’s, diagnosis isn’t simple. It shares many of the signs and symptoms associated with dementia, tumors, sleep disruptions, and aging itself.
According to New York Times science and medicine reporter Gina Kolata, “A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is not easy to make. Doctors rely mostly on tests of mental acuity and interviews with the patient and family members.” She adds that community doctors may only be about 50-60% accurate in diagnosing the disease. Since Alzheimer’s is so hard to identify, it’s important to have a strong understanding of your own mental acuity — and what you can do to improve it.
How to Improve Mental Acuity
We’ve all heard that eating well and exercising keeps the brain and body sharp. But new research points to specific lifestyle factors that influence cognitive health.
For example, research compiled by UCLA neurology professor Dale Bredesen outlines a list of habits associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s. This includes chronic stress, exposure to mold and environmental toxins, fatty foods, and a lack of exercise and restorative sleep.
Sugar is another hidden culprit: Most people who develop Alzheimer’s also have insulin resistance. While none of these things alone lead to cognitive decline, the compilation of unhealthy activities disrupts the equilibrium of the body and negatively impacts mental abilities. Fortunately, learning how to optimize your brain function through nutrition can help you improve your mental sharpness.
Opt for Brain-Healthy Nutrition
If sugar is the worst ingredient for cognitive ability, healthy fats just might be the best. Numerous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet — high in fresh fruits and vegetables and rich in healthy fats from fish, nuts, and olives — may slow or even prevent Alzheimer’s.
Incorporating these foods into your diet while reducing red meat (even in small amounts) can improve mental acuity, says Dr. Gad Marshall, who works in clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The positive impacts of a Mediterranean diet were reinforced in another recent study, where it was combined with the heart disease diet called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to create the MIND diet. This diet was designed to “place more emphasis on foods that have been linked by previous research to improved cognitive function and delayed decline,” according to Judith C. Thalheimer in Today’s Geriatric Medicine.
The MIND diet recommends eating green leafy vegetables and nuts every day. It also advises eating beans, berries, whole grains, poultry, and fish in moderate quantities throughout the week. While loading up on these brain-healthy foods, you should also limit red meat, pastries, fried foods, and dairy products.
Martha Clare Morris, who led research on the MIND diet, explains that vegetables are especially important for reducing cognitive decline. “Green leafy vegetables show up in research as particularly protective, so we recommend people eat things like spinach, kale, collards, or romaine at least six times a week.” She adds that in animal studies, strawberries and blueberries were associated with improved mental performance.
Work Your Body, Boost Your Mind
Regular exercise can make your body strong — but can it also strengthen your mind? This question is being explored by the EXERT study, which is testing exercise as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s. The approach follows a similar model that pharmaceutical companies use when testing new prescription drugs. Instead of popping pills, participants either hit the treadmill or work on stretching and flexibility.
While the study is still under way, there’s no shortage of research to support it. “The evidence in science has been building for the last 20 years to suggest that exercise at the right intensity could protect brain health as we age,” Baker says.
Other research proves that getting your mental gears turning is just as important as breaking a sweat. Specifically, a Swedish research study on 800 women shows that mental and physical exercises can help maintain mental acuity in midlife. Aside from physical exercises like walking, gardening, or playing sports, the study measured the impact of cognitive exercises like playing an instrument, attending a concert, socializing, or doing needlework.
Engaging in mentally stimulating exercises was shown to reduce the risk of dementia development by 34% in comparison to those who reported fewer cognitive activities. Additionally, regular, intense exercise was associated with a 57% reduction in multiple forms of dementia in comparison to more sedentary people.
These findings show that both your brain and your body need accurate exercise to maintain mental acuity and reduce age-related mental decline.
Maintaining Mental Acuity
Having a sharp mind is important for maintaining a high quality of life as we grow older. Cognitive decline is normal in older adults, but it isn’t entirely unavoidable. An increasingly large body of research shows that specific diets and targeted exercise habits can help reduce instances of cognitive decline.
Measuring your activity levels and revamping your diet could mean the difference between losing your independence and maintaining your freedom. When we can properly reason and remember, we can continue doing the things we enjoy with the people we love.