Is Cognitive Fitness Within Your Control?

I’ve often wondered what role personality traits play in cognitive fitness. Are people who are outgoing, conscientious and organized less likely to develop cognitive impairment and if so, why? Is it because they tend to be more social, enjoy detail-oriented tasks and can juggle more activities (i.e., work, hobbies, time with friends)?

In April 2022, the American Psychological Association published new research on this very topic. They concluded that people with high levels of self-discipline and conscientiousness who are organized and low in neuroticism are less likely to develop Mild Cognitive Impairment compared to those who are “moody or emotionally unstable.”

Of course, we can’t all suddenly transform our personalities to become goal-oriented, self-confident extraverts. But, as with physical fitness, there are some factors within our control when it comes to cognitive fitness—that is, when our abilities to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt are optimized.

Thanks to our knowledge of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and adapt at any age—we now know that serious cognitive decline doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of aging. So, what steps can you take to improve your cognitive fitness? Consider these six steps:

1. Eat for your brain.

Focus on brain-boosting foods that contribute to general brain health, including leafy greens, oily fish and plant-based omega-3s, blueberries, beans and high-fiber foods. Avoid high-sugar foods and beverages, unhealthy fats, inorganic food dyes and preservatives, which can lead to inflammation, decreased cognition, and even disease.

2. Get plenty of sleep.

Both quality and quantity matter when it comes to getting the sleep you need to maintain a healthy and sharp brain. In fact, a March 2022 study from Brown University and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science found that during sleep, our brain helps consolidate the knowledge and skills we learn while we’re awake. New research indicates that seven hours of sleep is optimal in middle and old age, with too little or too much associated with poorer cognitive performance and mental health. If you’re waking up tired, experiencing “brain fog” throughout the day, or are needing to fuel up with caffeine by mid-afternoon, it may be worth consulting with your doctor. Improving your sleep quality may be as simple as better sleep habits or getting a CPAP machine for sleep apnea.

3. Manage stress.

While preventing stress is often impossible, managing it may be more realistic. Meditation, prayer, mindfulness, social activities, and massage have all been found to decrease help decrease the impact of day-to-day stressors on the brain. If you can get out in nature—even if only to do some gardening, it may help fight stress, reduce depression and improve overall cognitive function. As researchers from Boston University School of Public Health found, exposure to “green space” appears to improve processing speed and attention.

4. Prevent and manage disease.

Virtually anything you to do to keep your body healthy and disease free will also benefit your brain, including disease management. Controlling your diabetes through diet, exercise, and medication, for example, can also reduce your chances of damage to small blood vessels in the brain. Left untreated, the damage can lead to vascular cognitive impairment. It’s worth noting that an April 2022 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that adults with Type 2 diabetes AND severe cognitive impairment were up to 1.6 times more likely to experience major heart-related health events, such as a stroke or heart attack.

5. Get physical exercise.

Multiple studies have found that people who exercise regularly have a lower likelihood of developing age-relate cognitive decline. Although aerobic exercise (i.e., cardio that gets your heart pumping) is known to protect the brain, even walking, yoga, and strength training can have protective benefits. As research in the April 2022 issue of Neurology reported, exercise helps maintain insulin and BMI levels, which may help stave off dementia by protecting gray matter volume.

6. Increase your mental exercise.

“Use it or lose it” doesn’t just apply to muscles that can atrophy. The human brain thrives on mental exercise, including reading, singing, puzzles, games, and learning new things. Pick up knitting, learn a new language, take a pottery class, or practice piano to give your brain a boost of new neural connections. At the end of 2021, research in the journal Aging found that the risk of developing dementia can be reduced through a combination of daily activities, such as word games, reading, playing cards, cooking, volunteering, gardening, and taking art classes.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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