So how do you enhance brain health, keep your memory sharp and improve mental clarity at any age?
Just because your loved one has started to show signs of losing their memory doesn’t mean it’s too late to focus on activities that can keep them as mentally sharp as possible. Cognitive health - how well you think, learn and remember - is closely related to other aspects of health & wellness, like physical health or emotional wellbeing.
Contrary to popular belief, there are things you can do to promote cognitive health, even if your loved one is already showing signs of memory loss. Both physical exercise and cognitive activities meant to stimulate the brain appear to be able to reduce, if not reverse, some of the negative effects of aging on the brain.
So what is cognitive health? It helps to understand how cognitive wellness — one of the eight dimensions of wellness for older adults — can affect other areas of our lives and why it is important for seniors to focus intentionally in this area of their life. Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Cognitive Wellness?
Cognitive wellness is about exercising the mind, engaging in lifelong learning, and expanding your knowledge and skills. Cognitive wellness includes:
- Keeping your mind active
- Using your creative abilities
- Finding ways to expand current or past knowledge and skills
- Reading or listening to books, articles, or other content on topics that interest you
- Being able to develop, analyze, and problem-solve
Believing you have control over your circumstances and having a positive outlook on aging play a key role in cognitive health.
Is memory loss inevitable? Not always. Research shows that certain parts of the brain can generate new neurons and new synapses. So, in essence, whenever you learn something new, engage in new activities, or even ponder a new concept, the brain will rewire itself in response to these activities. The good news is, your loved one has the ability to keep growing their brain and protect cognitive functioning as they age.
Resilience — or the ability to bounce back — is also associated with cognitive wellness. For older adults, resilience is not simply the ability to survive a difficult experience, such as the loss of a loved one or some other personally shattering event. It is the ability to adapt and cope with life-altering circumstances in a way that enables a person to emerge stronger, to thrive in the aftermath, and to integrate the lessons learned.
Characteristics of high resilience include:
- Adaptive coping styles
- Optimism and hopefulness
- Positive emotions
- Social support and community involvement
- Activities of daily living independence
- Physical activity
Why Is Cognitive Wellness Important?
There are many good reasons why your loved one should keep their brain active. Research out of Rush University Medical Center shows that older adults who frequently participate in common cognitive activities (including reading the newspaper, going to museums, and playing puzzle games) have a 47% less chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease than people who don’t challenge their minds in this way.
Studies show that lifelong learning provides older adults with skills, confidence, and self-esteem, which not only leads to improved performance in learning a new language or mastering new technologies, for example, but also overcoming daily life challenges. That’s because maintaining an optimal level of cognitive wellness not only gives you the ability to develop your creativity and growth mindset but also strengthens your concentration, memory, and critical thinking skills.
For example, 65% of older adults intentionally participate in activities to maintain their cognition, and those who deliberately engage in intellectual activities were found to have lower levels of cognitive impairment.
Resilience is key, too, because if your loved one thinks aging means declining health and eventual disability, their health will likely suffer. They might start to conform to the negative stereotypes of old age and aging and live up to those low expectations, thus performing at lower functioning levels in old age. For example, research indicates that older adults who have internalized ageism experience greater prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
But if your loved one is resilient — if they are open to learning from mistakes, researching what they want, or seeing the possibility of new or better opportunities — then they are more apt to suppress negative thoughts and carry on as the competent, productive member of society that they are, regardless of age or ability.
How Cognitive Wellness Impacts Overall Wellness
Cognitive wellness is crucial for another very important reason: It affects all other dimensions of wellness. Each part of wellness is interconnected. When one dimension suffers, others suffer, too. When you thrive in one area, other areas will thrive, too.
For example, developing healthier routines and habits can lead you to have a more positive outlook on life (emotional), can strengthen relationships (relational), can increase your overall energy (physical), and leave you feeling like you’re using your talents, skills, and abilities to engage in life rather than just watch it unfold (vocational, cognitive, spiritual).
Are You Happy with Your Cognitive Wellness Levels?
Think about your loved one’s daily routines, habits, and activities that build and maintain their cognitive wellness:
- Do they strive to learn new things and exercise their brain?
- Do they look for ways to use their creativity and critical thinking skills?
- Do they listen and consider the perspectives of others?
There are always opportunities for enhancing cognitive wellness. A wellness assessment is a great way to help you think about your loved one’s health and wellness needs and to quickly see what is working and what still needs improvement.
This Wellness Quiz for Older Adults is a great way to gather the information that will get your loved one on the path to a happy and healthy life. Take the quiz with your loved one or with your loved one in mind to see where you can enhance your wellness.