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Important Foods And Lifestyle Factors To Stop Cognitive Decline As You Age: Know From A Nutritionist

It's not how old you are, but how you are old. When we are young and youthful, our bodies are equipped to handle poor eating habits, excessive alcohol and smoking, stress and physical exertion or inactivity.

But as we start ageing, the body begins to show signs of cognitive impairment which is a result of the dietary habits or the lifestyle factors over the years.

Under cognitive impairment, you may experience any of the following [1][2]:

  • You forget things more often.
  • You forget important events such as appointments or social engagements.
  • You lose your train of thought or the thread of conversations, books or movies.
  • You feel increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions, planning steps to accomplish a task or understanding instructions.
  • You start to have trouble finding your way around familiar environments.
  • You become more impulsive or show increasingly poor judgment.
  • Your family and friends notice any of these changes.

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You may also experience [3][4]:

Lifestyle factors have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive change, including [5]:

  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Low education level
  • Infrequent participation in mentally or socially stimulating activities

A person with signs of cognitive impairment is at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's or dementia. Cognitive impairment can cause problems with a person's thinking, communication, understanding or memory.

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While there's currently no treatment that can prevent or cure dementia, researchers have identified some factors that may help protect you from cognitive decline. And thus, while we are in our youth, we should strive to correct our lifestyle and eating habits to protect ourselves from this degenerative condition as we age.


Factors That Help Prevent Cognitive Decline

A Mediterranean-style diet: A Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. It includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products while limiting red meat. This eating pattern has long been recognized as promoting better cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of certain cancers, and may protect against cognitive decline. A Mediterranean diet also appears to lower the risk of developing MCI and slow the progression to dementia in people who have the condition [6].

Exercise or physical activity: Staying physically active and engaging in exercises helps improve the cognitive function in people who already have memory problems. It may help ward off dementia. Regular exercises help prevent heart disease and type 2 diabetes; lowers the risk for high blood pressure, colon cancer, and breast cancer; and helps relieve insomnia, anxiety, and depression [7].

Sleep: Getting consistent, good-quality sleep is known to improve overall health and may prevent cognitive decline. Our bodies rely on a certain amount of regular sleep for a variety of essential functions, many of them in the brain. Studies have shown that people who regularly sleep less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night score lower on tests of mental function. This may be because learning and memories are consolidated during sleep [8].

Mental stimulation: Like physical activity, mental activity is equally important in the fight against cognitive decline. Keeping the brain stimulated through activities such as reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, engaging in group discussions, and playing music keeps the brain neurons working efficiently. Many researchers believe that education level is less critical in maintaining a healthy brain than the habit of staying mentally active as you age [9].

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Social contacts: Strong social interactions can help protect your memory and cognitive function. People with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive declines than those who are alone. Having a strong network of people who support and care for you can help lower your stress levels. Social activities require you to engage in several important mental processes, including attention and memory, which can enhance cognitive abilities [10].


How Does Diet Affect Our Brains?

Eating a certain way reduces the oxidative stress and inflammation that underlie Alzheimer's. Diet works indirectly by affecting other Alzheimer's risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Changes in the brain can occur years before the first symptoms of Alzheimer's appear. These early brain changes suggest a possible window of opportunity to prevent or delay dementia symptoms [11][12].


Diet To Prevent Or Delay Cognitive Decline

Similar to a Mediterranean diet, a diet focused on plant-based foods is linked to dementia prevention. It encourages eating from 10 healthy food groups [13][14][15]:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes, pulses and lentils
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Slices of bread from whole grains
  • Low salt
  • Herbs and spices
  • Minimally processed foods
  • Frequent consumption of fish and seafood (rich in omega 3 fats)
  • Dairy products, mainly yoghurt and cheese
  • Eggs (high-quality protein)
  • Wine in moderation with meals*
  • Managing portion size
  • Regular physical activity
  • Eat in company
  • Limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine and fast/fried food.

Note: Be careful about how much alcohol you drink. How the body handles alcohol can change with age.


Dietary Components And Supplements With Suggested Effects On Cognitive Decline

  • Omega 3 fatty acids: Include fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and avocado in your meals.
  • Curcuminoids: This is found in turmeric and is a potent antioxidant. It is considered an effective therapy for several conditions [16].
  • Magnesium: Deficiency of this mineral results in increased free radicals production in various tissues, increased oxidative tissue damage, increased inflammation, decreased antioxidant activity, decreased cellular and tissue antioxidant levels, and increased oxygen peroxide production. Nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables are a good source of magnesium [17].
  • Cocoa and cocoa derived products: Cocoa is a rich source of flavonoids, which has shown cardiovascular benefits. Some small acute and short-term chronic trials have suggested neuroprotective properties [18].
  • Tea and caffeine: They help prevent inflammation in the body. They also have antioxidant properties. However, excess of caffeine in the body can be damaging. Hence, it is advised to consume in smaller quantities. 2 cups a day is the ideal [19].
  • Vitamin D: Deficiency of this vitamin is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline [20].

On A Final Note…

Any supplementation or medication should never be taken without the advice of a medical professional. It can do more harm than good.