Every decision has some type of consequence — some are better than others. When it comes to short-term and long-term cognitive health, certain lifestyle choices can have severe, irreversible negative impacts on brain function. For example, smoking is considered a bad habit for a variety of health reasons. When it comes to the brain, specifically, studies have found that smoking deteriorates gray matter and increases risk of cognitive impairment in late life.1,2 Thus, it is important to mindfully adopt healthy daily habits. Conversations to Remember curated an evidence-based list of practices that may support long-term cognitive health.
- Get adequate sleep
Sleep is one of humanity’s most crucial, yet mysterious, phenomena. It is a proven fact that getting enough sleep is important for staying healthy. Countless studies and meta-analyses have detailed how lack of sleep affects the human body and mind. Sleep’s role in brain health is not yet fully understood, but one thing is certain: it is an essential part of healthy cognitive function. Sleep allows the brain to clear toxin build-up, promotes brain plasticity and mood stability.3,4
Unfortunately, the American Brain Association reports that approximately 50 million Americans (if not more) struggle with a sleep disorder.5 Though some nights of low-quality sleep are inevitable, certain things can help encourage a better night of sleep. For example, exercising during the day, sleeping at regular times and avoiding bright lights and loud sounds can all contribute to higher-quality sleep.3
- Incorporate physical activity into the day
It is common knowledge that exercise is beneficial for physical, especially cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health. What might be less known, however, is that exercise can significantly impact mental health as well. First, even as little as 20-30 minutes of physical activity per day can improve sleep quality.3 Exercise can also help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, both of which can negatively impact long-term cognitive health.6 Physical activity also stimulates the release of central and peripheral growth factors, which are linked to better learning, memory and neuroplasticity.7
It can be difficult to incorporate exercise into a busy routine, but it is far from impossible. Physical activity can be introduced in many forms depending on level of ability, including but not limited to going on daily walks or runs, doing light or heavy weightlifting, dancing (with a team, alone, as part of a class), taking a bike ride or even going for a swim.
- Practice physical safety
Head injuries of various intensities can affect the brain in adverse ways. Anything from a minor concussion to a severe injury can impact cognitive function. Possible side effects resulting from head injuries include shortened attention span, memory issues (including amnesia), problems with judgment, decreased self-awareness, and poor balance and coordination, among many others.8
Fortunately, a few practices can help reduce the likelihood of sustaining a head injury. Remembering to fasten the seatbelt when in a moving vehicle and wearing a protective helmet when appropriate can help prevent head injuries in dangerous circumstances. Senior citizens tend to struggle with balance more as they age, so it may be helpful to use some helpful safety mechanisms. Installing handrails in bathrooms or stairwells, decluttering spaces, opting for brighter lighting and placing non-slip mats in the bathroom can ease navigation in senior citizens’ homes.9
- Stay socially engaged
Loneliness can be as detrimental to long-term physical and mental health and well-being as regularly smoking cigarettes.10 This is especially true for senior citizens, who may experience more intense feelings of social isolation as they age. Organizations like Conversations to Remember aim to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation in senior citizens across the United States, as this is one aspect of well-being that is often overlooked.
Maintaining social connections and regularly interacting with others is beneficial for cognitive health. One study found that regular socialization can help older adults prevent symptoms of dementia.11 Fortunately, modern technology and social media platforms make it easier than ever to connect with friends and family. Socialization can take many forms, ranging from casual conversations to watching movies or playing games.11
- Take on cognitive challenges
Consistently keeping the brain active is one of the best ways to encourage long-term cognitive health. Stimulating the mind by engaging in activities and hobbies can improve mood stability. Additionally, staying mentally active can also have benefits for cognitive function, such as improved memory, and may reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairments related to dementia. In fact, focusing on training certain skills may lead to long-term improvements in performance.12
Activities like solving puzzles, learning a new skill or hobby, reading and playing different types of games can stimulate the brain, activating existing neuronal connections and building new ones to strengthen and maintain cognitive ability. While this is important for older adults, it’s never too early to establish helpful behaviors.
- Monitor sodium levels
Sodium is essential for a lot of human bodily functions, so maintaining appropriate sodium levels is important for good health. Unfortunately, high-sodium diets are quite common in the United States. Excessive consumption of sodium is dangerous for long-term health, as it is correlated with health issues like hypertension and cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging found that low-sodium diets were detrimental for the cognitive function of older adults living in communities.13 Thus, the ideal diet maintains a healthy sodium intake — per the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), adults are recommended to keep their daily sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day.14
Taking care of sodium levels can be complicated, but a few lifestyle changes can make the process a bit simpler. The easiest thing to do is cook at home more often, instead of eating out or ordering in. Looking for foods prepared without sauce or labeled “low-sodium” can be an easy way to avoid exorbitant amounts of sodium. This may not be totally feasible for everyone, so taking the time to ask about nutritional information when dining at restaurants or requesting less sodium in the dishes can be a good place to start.15
- Prioritize mental health
Mental health conditions can impact cognitive function in a variety of ways. According to a study published in the Clinical Psychology Review journal, researchers found that essentially every psychological disorder, ranging from generalized anxiety to schizophrenia, negatively affects cognitive function.16 While some mental health disorders are inevitable, some conditions can be prevented or managed by establishing healthy lifestyle practices and habits. For example, maintaining meaningful social relationships can help manage feelings of loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression. Refraining from smoking reduces negative symptoms of, and may help prevent, schizophrenia for some individuals. Of course, every situation is unique, and it is best to consult a professional before adopting any behaviors related to mental health.
If you are interested in further reading about different things that can impact cognitive function, read our piece about different foods that can boost brain health here.
- How smoking harms the brain. Age UK. (n.d.). https://www.ageuk.org.uk/information-advice/health-wellbeing/mind-body/staying-sharp/looking-after-your-thinking-skills/how-smoking-harms-the-brain/#:~:text=We%20found%20that%20smokers%20had,learning%2C%20so%20thicker%20is%20better
- Goriounova, N., & Mansvelder, H. (2012). Short- and long-term consequences of nicotine exposure during adolescence for prefrontal cortex neuronal network function. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, 2(12). https://doi.org/10.1101/cshperspect.a012120
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Brain basics: Understanding sleep. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/public-education/brain-basics/brain-basics-understanding-sleep#:~:text=Sleep%20is%20important%20to%20a,up%20while%20you%20are%20awake
- The science of sleep: Understanding what happens when you sleep. The Science of Sleep: Understanding What Happens When You Sleep | Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2021, August 8). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-science-of-sleep-understanding-what-happens-when-you-sleep
- Why sleep is important for brain health. American Brain Foundation. (2022, March 16). https://www.americanbrainfoundation.org/why-sleep-matters-for-brain-health/
- Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
- Cotman, C. W., Berchtold, N. C., & Christie, L.-A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: Key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464–472. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2007.06.011
- Traumatic brain injury. Traumatic Brain Injury | Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/traumatic-brain-injury
- TBI precautions: Tips to protect your brain. How to Prevent Brain Injury | Shepherd Center. (n.d.). https://www.shepherd.org/patient-programs/brain-injury/about/Brain-Injury-Prevention
- Doukeris, V. (n.d.). The Secondary Effects of Loneliness and Isolation. Conversations to Remember. https://conversationstoremember.org/the-secondary-effects-of-loneliness-and-isolation/
- Robinson, B. (2020, December 13). New study shows Social Connections Improve Your Brain Health. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrobinson/2020/10/25/new-study-shows-social-connections-improve-your-brain-health/?sh=5387cc0b67fc
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
- Rush, T. M., Kritz-Silverstein, D., Laughlin, G. A., Fung, T. T., Barrett-Connor, E., & McEvoy, L. K. (2016). Association between dietary sodium intake and cognitive function in older adults. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 21(3), 276–283. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12603-016-0766-2
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Sodium in your diet. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/nutrition-education-resources-materials/sodium-your-diet#:~:text=Americans%20eat%20on%20average%20about,recommended%20limits%20are%20even%20lower
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 23). How to reduce sodium intake. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/salt/reduce_sodium_tips.htm#:~:text=Buy%20fresh%2C%20frozen%2C%20or%20canned,the%20lowest%20amounts%20of%20sodium
- Abramovitch, A., Short, T., & Schweiger, A. (2021). The C factor: Cognitive dysfunction as a transdiagnostic dimension in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 86, 102007. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2021.102007