Dementia is a devastating disease, and many seniors count it as one of their fears as they age, with good reason. But there are many reasons to have hope and keep yourself from stressing out about it unnecessarily. For one, despite what many people assume about aging, cognitive decline is not an inevitable and normal part of the aging process. And beyond that, there are many measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing dementia, or if you’ve been diagnosed with it, slow, stall, or even reverse the progression of it.
Cognitive function is a multifaceted capability, with many different aspects to it. It is true that as we age, many people experience some amount of slowing of their brain’s processing speed. You may find yourself having difficulty recalling the word you’re looking for, or you may walk into a room and suddenly realize you have no idea what you went in there for. Multitasking may be more difficult.
But a younger brain is not necessarily better. With all the experience and wisdom you’ve gained over your life, you’re likely to have a larger and more varied vocabulary than younger people. It’s also usually much easier for seniors to look at the “bigger picture” of life and events. Overall, people should largely maintain a stable level of cognitive abilities throughout their lives. As we age, the connections between cells in the brain lengthen, which can allow us to relate and connect things that may seem very different. An older brain has formed connections and accumulated a wealth of memories that make higher levels of thinking possible. In many ways, our brains can actually get better with age.
Statistically, people are more likely to develop dementia the older they are. This is why the aging process is always associated with a decline in cognitive ability, but the truth is that experiencing cognitive decline is not a foregone conclusion. Many older adults retain excellent brain function well into their 80s and beyond, and perform as well or better than younger adults on tests gauging their mental acuity.
Many of us have heard the mantra “use it or lose it” when it comes to the faculties of our bodies. Whether it’s the strength of our muscles or the sharpness of our brains, the recommendation to prevent cognitive decline by engaging in mentally taxing activities like puzzles or word games is a common one. But few are aware of the underlying theory, that challenging yourself mentally or physically is what really makes the difference in brain plasticity.
The term plasticity refers to how the brain adapts and changes based on experiences. Learning new things in general, whether they be new languages, new dance moves, or a new hobby, working at things outside of our comfort zone will allow new wires and connections to form in the brain. The mindfulness, concentration, and sense of purpose and discovery you gain while engaging in these activities will strengthen the learning and memory functions of the brain.