Especially following the worst phase of a pandemic, maybe you embrace the idea of ageing with more open arms than many of us might have a few years ago. If you count every birthday as a blessing, there are simple choices you can make every day to age well.
And just like you follow practices to help your skin or heart age healthfully, we’re starting to understand that we can support our brains to better preserve memory, attention, reasoning and problem solving – making it easier to find your keys, engage with loved ones, and enjoy life for longer. Says Professor Joe Verghese, professor of neurology and founding director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for the Aging Brain in New York City: “A lot of research shows that healthy lifestyles and engaging in cognitively stimulating activities have a really robust effect on slowing the rate of cognitive decline and preventing dementia.”
On the other hand, some frequent habits can make you more vulnerable to memory and cognition problems down the road. Here’s what Verghese says are the worst habits that aren’t so beneficial for your brain, and what you can do to troubleshoot them right now.
You don’t exercise
Not getting enough physical activity may hasten cognitive decline and generally age us beyond our years. Exercising may prevent some of this decline. One 2020 review in Preventive Medicine highlighted a study that found cognitive decline occurred at twice the rate among inactive adults aged 45 and older, compared with active adults. Other research has supported the premise, including a 2022 study that found physical activity benefits the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical to memory.
The research isn’t conclusive, but exercise helps overall, Verghese says.
What to do
“Even if you start in your 60s, you can reap pretty dramatic benefits doing something simple like walking,” says Dr Art Kramer, founding director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University in Boston.
Weight training may also help, says Dr Denise C. Park, director of research for the Center for Vital Longevity and professor of brain and behavioural sciences at The University of Texas.
You sit around all day
Adults are sitting around more than ever – often in front of a screen – according to one 2019 American Medical Association study. This non-activity may contribute to brain changes associated with worsened memory.
What to do
Get up and walk around five minutes every hour. You can even set a timer to remind yourself. In a 2019 sports medicine study, aspects of cognitive function improved among participants who broke up periods of prolonged sitting. Similar benefits have been seen among schoolchildren – evidence that maybe a little recess time might not hurt for us grownups, too.