8 Things You Shouldn't Do When Trying to Prevent Cognitive Decline
Did you know that one in nine adults will experience cognitive decline as they age? While we often think of cognitive decline as something that only happens to our 90-year old grandmothers, over 10 percent of adults 45-65 experience what the CDC refers to as "subjective cognitive decline." Genetics play a role in this, but there are many modifiable lifestyle factors that can not only ward off cognitive decline but also enhance cognitive function such as sleep habits, diet, exercise routine and stress management.
Research shows that our lifestyle choices affect our brain health as we age, and continues to shed light on the importance of prioritizing healthy habits like eating fruits and vegetables and moving your body regularly. Beyond this expected advice (because you probably already know the benefits of eating your veggies), there are some habits that can affect your brain health in ways that may surprise you.
Read on for 8 things you should stop doing if you want to prevent cognitive decline.
1. Skip the artificial sweeteners
"Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame can wreak havoc on brain health and may lead to cognitive decline later in life," says Nicole Stefanow, M.S., RDN, a dietitian in the greater NYC area. Research has linked artificially sweetened beverages like diet soda to increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. Animal studies suggest that aspartame in particular may negatively affect brain health as well as memory and cognition. One review suggests that aspartame may also be a chemical stressor on the brain that can lead to negative neurological symptoms and reduced cognitive function over time.
But don't overdo it on sugar either. "High sugar intake has been associated with impaired memory and increased risk of dementia," says Vandana Sheth, RDN, CDCES, FAND author of My Indian Table: Quick & Tasty Vegetarian Recipes.
So what's someone with a sweet craving to do? A little bit of real sugar—whether that comes from maple syrup, honey or table sugar—is just fine. So, don't be afraid to add a teaspoon of sugar to your morning coffee, sweeten your yogurt with honey or enjoy the occasional cookie or ice cream. Aim to keep your added sugar intake to less than six teaspoons (24g) for women or nine teaspoons (36g) for men. The sugar found in fruit doesn't count towards this limit, so grab a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit to satisfy a sweet craving!
2. Don't skip out on exercise
"Exercise can help prevent cognitive decline by elevating the heart rate and increasing blood flow to the brain," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, founder of Nutrition Starring YOU. Exercise also increases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a role in memory and cognitive development. Low BDNF levels have been associated with reduced cognitive function as well as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease.
Aim to get about 30 minutes of low-to-moderate intensity exercise most days. This doesn't have to be all at once, and every bit counts. Choose exercise you enjoy whether that's running, dancing, hiking, yoga or walking. Activities of daily living like cleaning your house, gardening or running around with your kids (or grandkids) can also contribute to your movement goals.
3. Don't be (too) introverted
"Social interactions may protect memory and cognitive function as you age. People who have strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive decline. So even as you age, becoming a social butterfly is good for your health," says Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim.
In an era where connecting via social media has replaced in-person connection, it's important to put down your phones and get together with family and friends IRL (in real life). Excessive screen time is associated with premature cognitive decline, suggesting that in person connection is even more important to brain health as you age.
4. Don't brush off sleep problems
Both quality and quantity of sleep matter when it comes to brain health (and overall health). "Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Studies show that sleep deprivation increases the concentration of amyloid peptides in the brain, which may lead to Alzheimer's disease. Adequate sleep has the opposite effect," says Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD, FAND, Author of the MIND Diet Plan.
If you are skimping on sleep, prioritize getting to bed earlier. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, try eliminating any screen time an hour before bed and create a calming bedtime routine. Lastly, if you're waking up after seven to nine hours still completely exhausted, this could be a sign of other sleep problems like sleep apnea, so talk with your doctor about whether a sleep study or another intervention might be right for you.
5. Forget fad diets and expensive "superfoods"
Yes, foods like kale, spirulina and açaí all offer many health benefits. But if you get too focused on fancy superfoods, you might miss out on other foods that provide many brain-health benefits. Foods not traditionally considered to be "superfoods" like walnuts, beets and eggs all are linked to better cognitive function. In addition, foods like red peppers, oranges, strawberries and other vitamin-C rich foods may prevent cognitive decline, as vitamin C is linked to cognitive function.
While these foods may not be as sexy as goji berries or matcha, focusing on variety and eating a well-balanced diet filled with a variety of plant-based foods is what matters most. "Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and fish contain antioxidants and nutrients to prevent cognitive decline," says Andrews. Following a plant-rich Mediterranean-style diet is known to be much more effective at warding off cognitive decline than any individual food—super or not.
6. Don't pass off stress as a normal part of life
Some stress is unavoidable, but chronic stress that goes unaddressed can have a negative impact on the brain. In fact, several studies have linked psychological stress to increased risk of cognitive decline. Job strain at middle age has been linked to cognitive decline later in life as has major stressful life events.
Since it's impossible to eliminate stress from your life completely (for most people, at least!), find ways to cope with stress to reduce risk of cognitive decline. Try guided meditation or deep breathing exercises (apps like Stop.Breathe.Think. can be helpful), regular exercise, spending time outside, journaling or engaging in another hobby you enjoy. Most importantly, make time—even if it's just a few minutes a day—to take care of yourself.
7. Don't toss your egg yolks
If an egg-white omelet is still your go-to brunch order (or post workout breakfast), you may want to rethink that habit. "It is true that egg whites contain high quality protein, but the yolk is where all of the brain-boosting nutrients live, like choline and lutein. Only eating egg whites is not doing your brain any favors," says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LDN, CLEC, CPT, Women's Health Expert and author of The First Time Mom's Pregnancy Cookbook.
Higher choline intake is linked to better cognitive performance, yet most people fall short of the recommended 550mg per day for men and 425mg per day for women. One whole egg has 147mg of choline, which is one of the best food sources of this nutrient. If you're concerned about the cholesterol in eggs, know that dietary cholesterol has less of an effect on blood cholesterol (for most people) than we once thought. Unless you've been told by your doctor to limit eggs, there is no reason to skip the yolks.
If you don't love eggs, another good source of choline is chicken. "Dark and white meat chicken both contain vitamin B12 and choline, which together may aid in cognitive performance in older adults," says Manaker.
8. Don't drink (too much) alcohol
"Alcohol can affect memory and how the brain functions. Chronic excessive alcohol consumption can interfere with the brain's communication pathway by reducing the size of the neurons used to transmit information in the brain," says Dr. Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D., RDN, LDN, FAND, Nutrition Professor and the host of the award-winning nutrition and health podcast, Spot On!.
Regular over consumption of alcohol (more than 2 drinks per day) is linked to cognitive decline. "Moderation is key," says Dr. Blake. If you do choose to drink, stick to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks for men. "Pace your consumption by drinking non-alcoholic beverages before and after your drink of choice. Mocktails are wonderful for this," recommends Dr. Blake.