9 Ways to Strengthen Cognitive Function

How we function as we age is dependent on many factors both physical and mental. Age-related memory changes are a reality although the changes do not automatically mean some form of dementia is developing. Examples of the many types of memory problems that are common in normal aging, in mild cognitive impairment and in dementia are shown below.

Memory Effects in Aging To Watch

Normal Age-related Forgetfulness Mild Cognitive Impairment Dementia
Sometimes misplaces keys, eyeglasses or other items. Frequently misplaces items. Forgets what an item is used for or puts it in an inappropriate place.
Momentarily forgets an acquaintance’s name. Frequently forgets people’s names and is slow to recall them. May not remember knowing a person.
Occasionally has to “search” for a word. Has more difficulty using the right words. Begins to lose language skills. May withdraw from social interaction.
Occasionally forgets to run an errand. Begins to forget important events and appointments. Loses sense of time and doesn’t know what day it is.
May forget an event from the distant past. May forget more recent events or newly learned information. Has serious impairment of short-term memory. Has difficulty learning and remembering new information.
When driving, may momentarily forget where to turn; quickly orients self. May temporarily become lost ore often. May have trouble understanding and following a map. Becomes easily disoriented or lost in familiar places, sometimes for hours.
Jokes about memory loss. Worries about memory loss. Family and friends notice the lapses. May have little or no awareness of cognitive problems.

Source: “Guide to Understanding Dementia. Johns Hopkins Health Alerts. 2009.

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Significant Lifestyle Factors You Can Manage

Because many of the factors that help maintain good mental health are lifestyle factors, they are significant in that we have control over how we integrate them into daily practices. Physiological factors that help preserve cognitive function are reviewed first in this article, followed by several that are more psychological and social in nature.

  1. Maintain optimum weight. Individuals who have either high or low Basal Metabolic Rate’s may be at risk. Excessive weight puts stress on the body by raising blood pressure and increasing the possibility of diabetes and heart disease. Low body weight may predispose older persons to anemia, muscle loss and interference with the body’s ability to fight off disease.
  2. Practice good nutrition. In a conference at the National Institutes of Health on preventing Alzheimer’s disease, several dietary factors were linked to a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s: adequate folic acid intake, low saturated fat consumption, high fruit and vegetable intake, and light to moderate alcohol consumption. Antioxidants, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B12 have all been studied for their effect in cognition, and while more research is needed, there are indications that each of these nutritional factors play important roles. Eating a variety of foods and following an eating pattern such as the Mediterranean plan are shown to be the best choices.
  3. Keep physically active. Many researchers have shown the advantages of physical activity in relation to brain health. (Tweet this quote.) Walking, a good exercise that limits stress on muscles and joints, can result in good benefits. Strength training is also needed for muscle and bones to remain in good working condition. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain which also increases the delivery of oxygen for fuel and nutrients to the brain. Exercise may also help ward off depression and elevate good spirits.
  4. Get enough sleep. Rest is important for both the body and the brain to function well. Occasional naps may be a way of recharging but the importance of seven to eight hours of sleep at night is a habit important to maintain. The mind uses sleep time to remain active in certain ways to sort out and maintain memories and even solving problems. (Tweet this quote.) Sleep deprivation stresses the brain and can affect the ability to learn and to recall information. Mental alertness is empowered by getting about 45 minutes of sleep for every two hours awake. (Tweet this quote.) 
  5. Take care of the body. Having regular physical check-ups and taking medications as recommended by one’s physician are keys to maintaining overall health. Keeping blood pressure at recommended levels, checking blood lipids, and taking needed steps to prevent diabetes and other chronic diseases insofar as possible are all steps that maintain both physical and mental health. The body and mind are closely connected in that changes in the brain leading to depression or forms of dementia also have physical effects. For instance, persons may stop eating and exercising as well as avoiding social contacts. And in like manner, our physical habits bear directly on how well the brain functions.
  6. Education and lifelong learning. From a psychological standpoint, scientists who study the brain point to a number of factors that play a role. The amount of education a person attains can be a factor in the choices that lead to satisfactory occupations as well as relationships. The more education received, the more likely persons are to be motivated to use mental skills to solve problems and use research for health benefits. Taking a class, attending events that expose us to new experiences, lectures, even internet searching can all be stimulating to the brain. Persons who cultivate educational pursuits throughout life, including hobbies and travel, find satisfaction through continued mental stimulation. (Tweet this quote.)
  7. Exercise the brain. To keep memory sharp, researchers point out that activities that require brain power are beneficial in continuing to keep the brain sharp. Exercises can be as simple as doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku, chess or bridge, or keeping a journal. Even video games can help maintain mental dexterity through hand-eye coordination, depth perception and pattern recognition. Reading is another important way of using the brain. Taking on mental challenges such as learning a new skill or a foreign language or learning to play a musical instrument also keeps the brain sharp even though it may take longer and require patience and practice.
  8. Meditation. Turning the mind inward for contemplation and relaxation seems to help in a number of conditions, such as treating high blood pressure, anxiety disorder and depression. Researchers find that meditation can increase focus and attention thereby improving performance in cognitive tasks. (Tweet this quote.) Meditation even seems to boost the immune system.
  9. Stimulating relationships and social contacts. We are social animals and need contact with others. Joining groups with like interests to ours and participating in group activities, volunteering, and attending community events all help maintain sustaining relationships. Having a pet also seems to have beneficial effects by calming anxieties and leading to feelings of well-being similar to the effects of meditation.


Many lifestyle factors are directly related to both physical and psychological health. Cognitive ability can be helped and preserved through attention to good nutrition, physical activity, continually using the brain, getting enough rest and sleep and through maintaining social relationships.

CTA_Aging in Good Mental Health


This article has been adapted from Aging in Good Mental Health, by Esther Winterfeldt, Ph.D., a Regents Professor Emeritus from Oklahoma State University where she was head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences for 18 years.