Cognitive impairment is typically associated with aging. Indeed, as the clock is ticking, our brain gets older, and its performance declines. However, some cognitive skills peak as early as in one’s 20s. The decrease is inevitable, but fortunately, its slope depends on many factors that we control.
Four pillars of cognitive performance
There are areas that we should consider obligatory for everyone, irrespectively of one’s age. Neglecting any of these will negatively impact cognitive performance. And let me be even more precise — according to multiple studies, you cannot compensate for the lack in one area by overactivity in all others.
There are two aspects of diet when it comes to cognitive decline. The first one is about the nutritional, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties of food. While no single dietary component was proved so far to prevent cognitive decline in isolation, there is good evidence for the synergistic effect of the Mediterranean diet in delaying the decline.
The other aspect of the diet is its role in developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is strongly associated with a decrease in cognitive performance. Limiting the intake of highly processed carbohydrates and sugary drinks like soda is lowering the risk of developing this disease.
There’s very little to argue when it comes to exercise. A substantial body of research shows that regular aerobic exercise improves certain cognitive functions, increases neuroplasticity, and helps in coping with stress. The effect is visible already in children, who are yet to face age-related cognitive decline. Given the amount of evidence, there’s no excuse to move one’s butt.
Sleep disorders (including difficulty falling asleep, poor sleep quality, insomnia, daytime sleepiness, or sleep-disordered breathing) contribute to cognitive decline and dementia. Also, either insufficient or excessive sleep duration is negatively impacting the health of our brains. According to a recent meta-analysis, the optimal sleep duration is 6.3 hours at night and 7.3 hours for total daily. If fixing diet, exercising, and better stress handling doesn’t improve your sleep, it could be worth seeing a physician.
Multiple studies are showing the contribution of general stress to impairment of cognitive functions. The precise mechanism is not well understood, but epidemiological studies leave no doubts about the association. However, stressful situations are not the only factor in emotional well-being. Research shows that social isolation is causing memory decline. Depression is also linked to a decrease in cognitive skills. So, surround yourself with people and improve your stress coping skills. Consider professional help if you suspect depression or any other mental health disorder. Your brain will thank you for that.
Four icings on the cake
If you took care of the four pillars, there are additional ways to slow down cognitive decline. These are meant only to be icings on the cake. You cannot compensate for lack of sleep with any tricks, drugs, supplements, or whatever biohacker’s gizmo you read about on Reddit. Biology is unforgiving.
At some point in your career, you are likely to reach a plateau. Becoming world-class at something feels good and brings the wealth/fame/success you desired (now, replace “world-class” with “good enough” and “wealth” with “salary” — notice that the plateau is still there ;) ). The caveat is that keeping cognitive skills in shape requires constant attention. Therefore, the ongoing mental stimulation (reading, discussing, meeting new people, learning a new skill) is essential to prevent cognitive decline. Recently there’s a wave of “brain training games,” but their effectiveness in cognitive enhancement is not yet well supported.
The majority of brain health supplements have no evidence when it comes to delaying a decrease in cognitive skills. While multiple nootropics supplements acutely improve specific cognitive functions, there’s insufficient evidence for long term improvement of your brain’s performance and slowing down the age-related decline.
Side note: it could be that mixed evidence is related to the types of extracts used in these studies. I’m not saying that plants like Bacopa monnieri do not work, I’m just saying that specific claims are not well supported.
Consistent evidence for memory and thinking skills improvement exists for acetyl-l-carnitine and B vitamins.
Engaging all senses
It is a complementary area to mental stimulation. Engaging in multisensory activities is improving memory, language, and speed of information processing. It could be pottery, painting, and dancing, but my favorite is learning to play any instrument. The musical practice was probably the most studied intervention in that respect and had robust evidence from meta-analyses.
Mindfulness practice (meditation, yoga, etc.) has so many benefits that it couldn’t be omitted. When it comes to delaying cognitive decline, it is effective even in adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Fix four things first:
- emotional well-being
Once you have it covered, consider adding:
- Mentally stimulating activities
- Activities engaging multiple senses
- Supplements like acetyl-l-carnitine or B vitamins