After World War II, there was a surge of babies born in the United States. These “baby boomers” (those born between 1946-1964), make up nearly 25 percent of the American population. Considering World War II ended 72 years ago, most baby boomers are at, or approaching, retirement. As with any aging population, rates of certain diseases tend to increase. One of these diseases is dementia. Given the size of the baby boomer generation, the prevalence of dementia in the United States is expected to increase over the next couple of decades.
The World Health Organization defines dementia as “a syndrome–usually of a chronic or progressive nature–in which there is deterioration in cognitive function (i.e. the ability to process thought) beyond what might be expected from normal aging”.
The earliest stage of dementia is referred to as “mild cognitive impairment”. Most people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment end up developing some form of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common.
Although treatment options for dementia are limited, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that a healthy lifestyle can prevent or delay its onset. As will most diseases, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and maintaining a healthy body weight is a good start. Additionally, consuming a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruit, and plant-based fat is associated with improved cognitive function (1-3). While a diet rich in animal-based saturated fat may be detrimental (4-5). Staying active throughout life and being physically fit are also good for our brain (6-7). While an active body is good for our brain, an active brain may be even better.
It is well documented that people who stay mentally engaged in life tend to preserve brain function into their later years. For example, you may have heard that playing an instrument or learning a new language is good for your brain and overall health. Well, you heard correct!
Dr. Roger Landry emphasized the importance of staying mentally engaged in his well-written book, Live Long, Die Short – A Guide to Authentic Health and Successful Aging. It is also a common characteristic of people living in “Blue Zones”, a term coined by National Geographic’s Dan Buettner to describe places in the world where people live long, healthy lives.
Numerous studies have looked at mental engagement and the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia in older adults (8-10). They typically find that people who engage in more mentally-stimulating activities tend to have lower rates of cognitive decline and dementia. Now these types of studies can’t prove cause and effect, and the results may be due to something called reverse causality (doing more mentally stimulating activities may not lead to less cognitive decline, but rather people with less cognitive decline may do more mentally-stimulating activities). But when there are no harmful side effects, and the data makes sense in theory, there’s no reason not to apply the findings.
So, what were these “mentally-stimulating activities” that are linked to less dementia?
- Doing crafts
- Using a computer
- Socializing with friends/neighbors/relatives
- Playing board/card games
- Joining organized activity groups
- Volunteer work
- Participating in religious groups, business associations, or political groups
- Playing musical instruments
One activity that was included in all of these studies was playing board/card games. I have anecdotal evidence that aligns with these findings. My great-grandparents, who I was fortunate enough to have known into my teenage years, were avid card players. According to my mom, they played cards almost every day, often with friends. I suspect, and apparently their primary care physician did as well, that playing cards contributed to their successful aging, as both lived independently into their mid-90’s.
As with any healthy lifestyle behavior, it’s never too early or too late to incorporate it into your life. Use the list above to help brainstorm activities that sound interesting. Last year, I started volunteering at Peaceful Prairie Animal Sanctuary, which has been extremely rewarding. My wife, Lindsay, takes writing classes and is in a book club with her sister. A group of our friends have started having “game night” every other week. We joined a recreational volleyball league. I recently bought a ukulele and plan on taking lessons soon.
The key is to find things that are interesting, fun, and fit within your schedule (don’t overdo it, or you’ll have no free time). And remember….um….hmm….sorry, I forgot what I was going to say. Anyone up for a game of chess?
- Vegetables, unsaturated fats, moderate alcohol intake, and mild cognitive impairment.
- Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer disease mortality.
- Mediterranean diet, cognitive function, and dementia: a systematic review.
- Dietary fat types and 4-year cognitive change in community-dwelling older women.
- Dietary Fat Intake and Cognitive Decline in Women With Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in middle age
- Cardiovascular and cognitive fitness at age 18 and risk of early-onset dementia.