Tips for Preserving Cognition

doing a crossword puzzle

“Leonardo da Vinci’s [blank] Lisa .” Can you fill in the blank? Of course you can. But don’t get too excited. It turns out that crossword-puzzle prowess and practice are not necessarily going to help preserve your cognition. According to University of Wisconsin–Madison neuropsychologist and assistant professor Carey Gleason, PhD, you should do crossword puzzles if you enjoy them, but there are other important ways to protect your mind.

Current cognitive science suggests that we should take a mind/body/spirit approach to slowing age-related cognitive changes.

Mind

There is some evidence that building cognitive reserves early in life helps to stave off cognitive problems later on. Cognitive reserves means strengthening your mind early on through learning. Formal education, such as college, as well as informal learning, such as hobbies and apprenticeships, may help to build these reserves.

Preserving the mind is another good reason to treat depression. According to Dr. Gleason, depression is a risk factor for dementia; getting treatment for depression may decrease this risk.

Using pleasure-inducing substances, such as nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, may provide some relief in the short term, but are detrimental to the mind in the long term. Stopping smoking and limiting alcohol and caffeine can help prevent sleep problems, accidents, and physiological changes that all contribute to poor brain health. Chronic stress can have a long-term effect on brain function, impacting areas of the brain that control memory and mood.

Body

It may not surprise you that what is good for the body is good for the mind. Cardiovascular health, keeping your heart and blood vessels pumping and clear, helps your brain. Heart health equals brain health. We know that cardiovascular disease leads to cognitive problems. Doing the crossword may be easier than walking, swimming, or running a few miles, but exercise is a key ingredient for feeding the mind. Or, as Dr. Gleason recommends, do both! Work the crossword while walking on a treadmill.

Feeding the mind also means a heart- and brain-healthy diet. The same lower-sodium diet with lots of vegetables and legumes, fruits, and healthy fats, such as olive oil and lean proteins, helps your brain stay fit. Maintaining a healthy weight and regular fitness round out the recipe. Psychologist Lisa Mosconi, PhD, has conducted research finding observable differences in brain images between a Mediterranean diet and a western diet. The brains of those who consistently ate primarily vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts showed robustness in comparison to those who ate more meat, fat, and sugar. The traditional western-diet brains showed atrophy and greater loss of neurons.

Other foods, such as turmeric—a spice used in Indian and other southeast Asian cuisines, are showing promise of protecting against physiological changes in the brain and improving memory and mood.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity—the same old culprits—contribute to higher risk of cognitive decline as we age. A good night’s sleep is essential for good functioning. Poor sleep and daytime sleepiness have been linked to cognitive decline.

Spirit

Creating and sustaining meaning in your life is essential for brain resilience. Those who are involved in their communities, maintain consistent and close social connections, and who feel they are contributing are more resilient to cognitive problems. Practicing spirituality, whether it is attending a place of worship or engaging in meditation or yoga, can contribute to having a positive and peaceful outlook and a more general sense of well-being.

Injury

A recent study published by Jesse R. Fann, PhD, from the University of Washington found that a history of traumatic brain injury significantly increases the likelihood of developing dementia. Multiple incidents of brain injury increase this likelihood dramatically.

Protecting your brain should take a multimodal approach. Protect yourself from falls by staying fit, working on your balance by practicing yoga or Tai Chi, and keep trip hazards out of the way. Always place a ladder on an even surface. Wear your seatbelt. And wear a helmet when you are riding a bike or a horse, skiing, and snowboarding. Parents should make sure that they teach their children to do the same.

It’s never too early or too late to invest in your brain health. There are no guarantees, but attending to mind, body, and spirit has the potential to pay off in myriad ways.

Photograph by Maison Meredith Photography

Elizabeth H. Winston, PhD , is a Madison psychologist who provides psychotherapy, psychological assessment, and consultation to businesses and organizations. Find her at shorewoodpsychology.com and consultingcollaborative.org .