To Stay Cognitively Sharp When Aging, Pay Attention to These 3 Health Tips

How can we reduce our risk of cognitive decline? The best plan is simpler and more flexible than you may think.

By Avery Hurt
Feb 26, 2024 2:30 PM
Senior woman exercising in living room
(Credit: Photoroyalty/Shutterstock)

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If you’re trying to figure out how to stay sharp as you age, I’m guessing you aren’t lacking advice. You’ve probably read dozens of articles telling you specific things you can do to reduce your risk of cognitive decline — work a sudoku every morning, learn Mandarin Chinese, eat seven servings of kale each week, join a book club, get up at 5 a.m. and meditate. There’s so much advice out there you may be confused. Or ready to just give up and let nature take its course.

If that’s you, then Laura Baker has some good news for you: It’s not that complicated. Baker, a gerontology and geriatric medicine professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, has studied aging and cognitive decline for many years. Currently, she’s one of the principal investigators on the U.S. Pointer Study, the world’s largest ongoing clinical trial looking at the effects of lifestyle interventions on cognitive function in older adults who are at increased risk for cognitive decline.

So yes, she can get into the weeds on this. But you don’t need to. The basics really are surprisingly simple. 

1. Eat Well and Make Homemade Meals Often

Baker says that Americans are well-fed but undernourished. She says preservatives may make your food last longer, but they do not feed your brains. Eat real, homemade food as much as possible. When it comes to eating for brain health, stick to the same diet you’d choose for heart health. Keep it simple by following Michael Pollan’s famous advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”


Read More: Can the MIND Diet Slow the Progression of Alzheimer's?


2. Exercise

When it comes to exercise, the lesson is the same as with food: What you do to take care of your body takes care of your brain, says Baker. But she’s not going to give you a specific number of reps or a list of aerobic exercises — just this advice: Move more.

“We sit more than we ever have before,” she points out. Most of us sit all day at work, then we spend our leisure time sitting while we watch movies or play games on our phones. We drive places when we could easily walk. So, if the goal is improving brain health, just get up and move more.


Read More: Combat Cognitive Decline With These 5 Activities


3. Stay Engaged Mentally

You won’t get a list of brain games from Baker, either. Instead of what activities you should choose, she offers advice about how to choose activities that help keep you sharp.

“Stretch yourself,” she says. “Find ways to get out of your comfort zone.” If you’re having to learn something new and find yourself thinking, I don’t feel comfortable; I don’t know what I’m doing here, that’s a good thing, says Baker. “That’s because it forces you to talk to others and find new pathways to solve a problem.”

Did you notice that there was no crossword puzzle or obscure green vegetable on this list? And, oh my gosh, she didn’t say how many reps to do when lifting weights or how many steps to take each day! That’s because, Baker says, when you talk to people about exercise or diet or cognitive and social engagement, you have to meet them where they are. 

Giving people a list of specific things to do just isn’t work. (I loathe sudoku). Instead, think about what you like. Find healthful foods that you relish. Pick physical activities that you’ll look forward to and mental challenges that are fun. Create your own plan for brain health.

Do you still want specifics? Baker puts it like this: “Move more, sit less, and eat a colorful plate.” You get to decide how to make that happen.


Read More: What You Need to Know About the 6 Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease


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