Cognitive capacity and brain health have more to do with successful aging than one might think. Nowadays it’s not enough just to age gracefully. The new goal is to age successfully. Today millions of Americans are experiencing longer lives than ever before. In fact, the percentage of Americans age 65 and older has more than tripled in the last 100 years, and now represents 13 percent of the population. There has been a shift from that of medically prolonging life to ensuring that a prolonged life is actually worth living.
Psychological researchers are working the problem from several angles, and some of the most practically applicable work has come from the field of memory and cognition. Scientists suggest that it is cognitive capacity, more than any physical disability that most often determines whether people can attain extreme old age while remaining active.
What is Cognitive Health?
While standardized, widely accepted definitions of cognitive health have yet to be adopted, most experts agree that the components of healthy cognitive functioning include things like language, thought, memory, and executive function (the ability to plan and carry out tasks). Cognitive health can be viewed along a continuum from optimal functioning to mild cognitive impairment all the way to severe dementia.
Lack of cognitive health can have profound implications for an individual’s health and wellbeing. Older adults and others experiencing cognitive decline may be unable to care for themselves or handle the necessary activities of daily living. Limitations with the ability to effectively manage medications and existing medical conditions are particular concerns when an individual is experiencing cognitive decline or dementia. By recognizing, treating or even preventing cognitive decline, the lives of many older adults can be improved.
Healthy Brain Initiative
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Alzheimer’s Association have partnered to create the Healthy Brain Initiative, a national public road map to maintaining cognitive health. For the last several years, new research has emerged that shows there are many things we can do to keep our minds healthy. Many of the same things we do to keep our bodies healthy contribute to healthy minds. Physical activity and a diet that helps lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure also helps to keep our minds healthy by allowing our bodies to deliver oxygen-rich blood to our brains. In addition, activities that stimulate our minds, like crossword puzzles, reading, writing, and learning new things, help to keep our brains healthy. Staying engaged with the people around us and in our communities plays an equally important role in staying mentally fit.
Neuroscientists have been studying the potential of choline, a B-complex vitamin, to prevent cognitive decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia and even to regrow brain cells as we age. In several often-cited studies out of Princeton University, choline was found to stimulate the growth of new brain cells and neural connections, a process once thought impossible after a certain age.
When shopping for B vitamins, look for something with multiple B’s, including choline, to improve your cognitive functioning. You can also look for Huperzine A, a plant-derived compound that acts as a cholinesterase inhibitor, meaning it has similar effects on neurotransmitters as some FDA-approved drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Take B vitamins to improve your cognitive capacity and help you age successfully.