What is cognitive vitality? Or perhaps we should first ask, what is cognitive decline? It may be something you or your elderly loved one is experiencing right now. With normal aging, cognitive decline takes the form of slower mental processing. Verbal communication, written communication, and decision-making can be things your senior is slower to do and understand. Though some accept cognitive decline as an inevitable part of aging, studies show that it can sometimes be reduced. In other words, you or your elderly loved one can take steps to promote and achieve cognitive vitality.
“Vitality shows in not only the ability to persist, but the ability to start over,”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Vitality” is defined as the power giving continuance of life, or the state of being strong and active. Like any willing and able adult, your elderly loved one has all the potential to adopt new, healthy lifestyle strategies to promote cognitive vitality. Explore the following topics, and find out how you or your elderly loved one can train yourself to maintain cognitive vitality.
If you were ever told, “Old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” you’ve been misled. In general, old and young adults have been shown to learn new tasks and skills at approximately the same rate. In a study published by Psychology and Aging, older adults given the same training as young adults performed tasks with equivalent accuracy and improvement rates. In fact, “some cognitive functions increase with age and can compensate for functions that may decline,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you or your senior loved one is a lifelong learner, they may enjoy things like reading, mastering crafts, or exploring new places with loved ones. A senior who encounters a new project or community is presented with the challenge of adapting to mental stimuli. Acquiring new knowledge in these ways engages aging minds biologically and emotionally. Lifelong learners constantly peak and satisfy curiosity so much that the mind never slows to decline.
Among the noticeable changes in seniors aging with cognitive decline is slowing or warping of decision-making. Without the quick and flexible mental reflexes of youth, seniors may struggle to make both small and large decisions, like where to go for lunch or which doctor to call for medical aid. Neuroscience research has shown that with age, the brain changes structurally, and sometimes at the cost of cognitive vitality.
Complex, supervised intellectual work will improve cognitive strength against these biological risk factors. Under the guidance of a trusted caregiver or loved one, seniors should be given the chance and time to make executive decisions on their own. For example, if Laura is wondering what to buy at the grocery store, her caregiver can ask questions like: “What do you already have in the fridge?” “What do you usually buy?” “This is your budget, will it cover this item?” These are kindly-put, guiding questions a supervisor can ask to help seniors rationalize without making the decisions for them.
Special circumstances make it easy for senior citizens to become socially isolated. With limited mobility, they may not be able to travel to see friends or loved ones. Health restrictions may keep them from enjoying regular activity outside of home. And especially with cognitive decline, seniors may not find their environments welcoming or safe to interact with. The danger of social isolation goes beyond physically being contained in one place alone. Seniors who have little or no social engagement have poor psychological health.
Social engagement is necessary for seniors to actively develop their cognitive capacities. If you don’t know where to socialize, check out what your home town has to offer. Typically, every American city with a recreation department in their government has opportunities for seniors to socialize. Recreational programs offer seniors group activity through exercising, doing crafts, watching movies, reading, or playing games. Often, these services are free to city residents. When engaging in social activities such as these, seniors continue the mental practice of communicating with and learning from others. Talking or being in the company of peers is an enjoyable, complex mental activity proven to protect against cognitive decline and dementia in late life.
Fitness & Nutrition
There is a direct relationship between physical health and cognitive function. Studies show that physical exercise disrupts vascular risk factors that contribute to cognitive decline. Aerobic fitness in particular, which focuses on the body’s oxygen intake, translates into increased brain blood flow. In turn, the brain is supported efficiently and empowered to stay active. Fitness promotes good changes in the structure and function of the brain as well, according to Neurobiology of Aging.
In relation physical fitness, nutrition plays just as large a part in promoting cognitive vitality. Malnutrition can cause long-term cognitive impairment. Unfortunately, seniors who are incapable of preparing healthy meals or are vulnerable to dietary elder abuse are denied good nutrition. B Vitamins, antioxidants, vitamin E and vitamin C are important in protecting the brain from injury. Eating foods rich in these nutrients, such as leafy greens, fruits, and colorful vegetables, will provide the necessary ingredients toward cognitive vitality.
In people of any age, unhealthy stress is counterproductive to cognitive vitality. For the elderly in particular, cognitively frail individuals with decreased brain reserve are especially at risk for cognitive decline caused by stress. There are short- and long-term effects on the structure and cognitive reserve of the mind. It results in hippocampal atrophy, or the wasting away of parts of the brain.
Fortunately, seniors can train to reduce stress to protect their mental strength. Activities that have other health benefits, like exercise, are outlets to relieve stress productively. Practicing adaptive, open-minded methods for responding to stress are mental strategies to defeat it. Making a mental note to observe concrete evidence of an unhealthy, stressful thought can prove that you should not be worried about it at all.
There is an interference between Bob and Grace’s favorite shows, for example. Instead of the stress of pleasing or fighting with each other, Bob and Grace can resolve to watch one good show they both enjoy together. Lifestyle strategies such as these take training and practice to learn. How stress is perceived is what’s critical to the stress that you feel. In Bob and Grace’s case, their decision towards peace is a leaping bound towards cognitive vitality.
Kramer, A. F., & Willis, S. L. (2002). Enhancing the cognitive vitality of older adults. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 173-177.
Fillit, H. M., Butler, R. N., O’connell, A. W., Albert, M. S., Birren, J. E., Cotman, C. W., … & Perls, T. T. (2002, July). Achieving and maintaining cognitive vitality with aging. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 77, No. 7, pp. 681-696). Elsevier.
“Lifestyle Strategies to Promote Cognitive Vitality,” by Michelle Mendoza, Amada Blog Contributor