Whilst cognitive impairment and dementia are the results of genetic and environmental factors that individuals can usually do little to influence, the same is not true of cognitive decline. Research estimates that three-quarters of the factors that influence cognitive decline are those over which individuals can exercise varying degrees of control, vis:
A healthy, balanced diet can reduce the chances of suffering cognitive decline. This does not have to mean an over-emphasis on goji berries, blueberries, wheatgrass or whatever is the current favourite “super food”. Instead, it means following a traditional approach to healthy eating, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, especially leafy greens. There is some evidence to suggest that a Mediterranean-style diet may be particularly beneficial. This means a diet that centres around plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains and nuts. It also includes olive oil, oily fish and replacing salt with herbs and spices. Red meat consumption is usually limited to no more than a few times per month, but chicken can be eaten more frequently. Occasional small glasses of red wine are a popular optional feature of this diet. More recently, evidence has emerged that following a new diet, called the "MIND diet"
, can drastically slow mental decline. Sharing some similarities with the better known Mediterranean-diet, the MIND diet places less emphasis on fruit, dairy and potatoes, and does not require fish to be eaten more than once a week.
Doctors and nutritionists who promote the Mediterranean or MIND diets tend to emphasise the need for it to include plenty of exercise
. However, even those not following this diet should understand the relevance of exercise to reducing their risk of suffering cognitive decline. Research demonstrates a clear link between regular exercise and reduced cognitive decline. It appears that cardiovascular exercise sufficient to raise the heart rate results in increased blood flow to the brain and promotes increased levels of chemicals known as “brain-derived nerve growth factors”. The exercise taken need not be akin to training for a marathon. For many people, regular gardening or brisk walking can be sufficient to raise their heart rate. Strength training is also important and, with the right instruction, can even be done from a sitting position.
Keeping mentally active
There is evidence to suggest that those people with the highest levels of formal education are also some of those least likely to suffer either cognitive decline or dementia. However, even for those who are not Oxbridge graduates or PhD-holders, there is no need to despair. Learning and education at any stage of an individual’s life can be hugely beneficial. It also can be as simple as attending evening classes or engaging in an online learning programme. As well as formal learning, it is important not to neglect challenging the brain in everyday life. This can be achieved by activities like crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and strategic games, such as bridge. New NHS guidance emphasises the importance of staying mentally active throughout the entirety of an individual's life
, in order to see the greatest benefits.
Evidence suggests that those people who place significant emphasis on maintaining strong social networks
benefit cognitively. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to have close family but lunch with friends, volunteering or participating in a group activity, such as singing, can all help to promote better brain health.
Sleep does not always come easily, particularly for older people, who may wake earlier or experience increasing bouts of insomnia. However, managing to get the optimum amount of sleep
, which, of course, varies between individuals, will reduce the likelihood of memory and processing problems. More generally, it will also ensure that it is easier to function properly and so enjoy each day to the fullest extent possible. Ensuring any sleep apnoea is treated
, perhaps with oxygen supplementation while asleep, is also thought likely to be beneficial in reducing the risk of cognitive decline.