Experiencing cognitive changes later in life is just as common as physical impairment. While many older adults stay as mentally sharp as ever until they pass on, cognitive impairment in the elderly is far too common to ignore.
In this article, we will be talking about the signs, symptoms, and possible risk factors of cognitive impairment, as well as the many ways you can keep your mind sharp and decrease your risk of developing neurological conditions as you age.
Signs of Cognitive Impairment in the Elderly
When an elderly person develops cognitive impairment, he or she may start experiencing signs and symptoms like:
- Forgetting appointments
- Forgetting dates and events
- Forgetting recent conversations
- Losing sense of direction
- Feeling overwhelmed with plans and decisions
- Losing one’s train of thought more frequently
- Becoming more impulsive
- Showing poor judgment
- Becoming suddenly unfamiliar with usual routes or places
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) will cause these signs and symptoms, and you may be aware of them. The people around you will likely notice, too. These mental changes are usually not severe enough to cause interference in your day-to-day life. However, MCI may increase your risk of developing dementia or other neurological conditions later on.
Minor or infrequent occurrences of forgetfulness are not always a sign of cognitive impairment. They can be signs of mental decline associated with normal aging–not full-blown MCI–and are usually not a cause for concern. Nevertheless, it is important to talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have about your cognitive state, even if the signs or symptoms feel minor.
Risk Factors of Cognitive Impairment
According to current evidence, MCI often develops from the same types of brain changes that are seen in Alzheimer’s disease as well as other forms of dementia; only that these brain changes are of lesser degree. These changes include reduced blood flow to the brain’s blood vessels, Lewy bodies (clumps associated with Parkinson’s), and abnormal protein clumps in the brain that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Increasing age and having a specific form of gene APOE e4 (associated with Alzheimer’s) are the largest risk factors of MCI. Other risk factors include:
- High cholesterol levels
- Lack of physical activity
- Low education level
- Lack of mental and social stimulation
- Taking certain medication
- Poor sleep
The Importance of Early Screening
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends older adults to undergo screening for cognitive impairment as early as 65 years old. In doing so, elderly people who are already experiencing cognitive impairment can receive treatment for the underlying cause/s as early as possible.
Early diagnosis and treatment can result in:
- Treating the underlying health condition
- Addressing potential safety risks
- Planning long-term care
- Reducing other risk factors
- Improving the management of comorbidities
Cognitive impairment becomes more difficult to treat as it progresses. Ensuring proper long-term care and management can even be harder, especially if the condition is progressing rapidly. By starting screening early, MCI and other neurological conditions become easier to detect as soon as possible, making way for better management and treatment programs if you arrive with a positive result.
Tips to Stay Mentally Sharp as You Age
Many health-related risk factors of cognitive impairment are preventable or otherwise treatable. If the risk factors mentioned above apply to you, address them as soon as possible and to the best of your ability. For instance, if you are a smoker, talk to your doctor about smoking
cessation options. If you have untreated depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, seek help from a mental health professional.
Similarly, if you are experiencing signs or symptoms of other comorbidities (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.), go to your doctor for screening ASAP.
Apart from addressing the possible health-related causes of cognitive decline, here are other strategies that can help you stay mentally sharp as you grow older:
- Engage in mentally stimulating activities
The brain is like a muscle; if you don’t use it all too often, it will start to decline. That said, an effective way to stay mentally sharp is to constantly engage in mentally stimulating activities. Exercise your brain with puzzles, books, classes, and hobbies daily. Learn something new, be it a language or a skill or an obscure craft. Or perhaps listen to music, sing, and dance, even if you are not good at it.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a productive activity or not–as long as your brain is stimulated, it should be good enough. Better yet, engage in these activities with other people to address your social needs as well.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise provides many benefits for the elderly. For one, it helps keep your bones strong and your joints flexible. It can also reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and other physical conditions. Furthermore, regular exercise is another effective strategy against cognitive impairment as it can help maintain normal blood flow to the brain tissue, reducing the risk of damage or decline.
Going from the last tip, exercise is also a way to stimulate your brain. If you are following an exercise video, for example, you have to pay attention to know what move to do next. Or if, say, you are cycling, you have to keep a lookout for possible obstacles in your way.
- Practice good sleep hygiene
Experts believe that not getting enough sleep interferes with the brain’s ability to flush out harmful proteins that are linked to dementia. Lack of good sleep can also increase your risk of depression, anxiety, obesity, and other factors of MCI. That said, practicing good sleep hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent cognitive decline, as well as the other factors that can contribute to its development.
Aim to get at least seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. If you have trouble falling and staying asleep, optimize your bedroom environment to promote better sleep. For example, use a weighted blanket, play white noise, keep all the lights closed, or lower the room temperature. If these strategies are ineffective, consult with a sleep specialist.
- Be social
Lack of socialization is another major risk factor to mental decline, as well as depression and other mental illnesses. Many older adults have trouble connecting with others for a variety of reasons, such as living far away from loved ones, lack of socialization opportunities, and having limited physical mobility.
Nevertheless, there are many ways to prevent social isolation. For one, you can take advantage of technology to communicate with loved ones no matter where you are, as well as make new friends online who share the same interests as you. You can also try visiting senior centers in the community to interact with other folks and maybe even obtain assistance for your day-to-day routine. Whether it’s your children or the neighbor, try to interact with at least one person every day–no matter how short that interaction may be.
- Challenge yourself mentally
Is there a concept that you just can’t seem to wrap your head around? A book that you cannot interpret to save your life? Or perhaps a tricky language that is proving to be impossible to learn? We’ve already stressed the importance of keeping yourself mentally stimulated. But why not take it a step further and challenge your brain to go to the next level?
Even if it’s hard, it’s not impossible. And your brain will appreciate the mental exercise that it will get while trying to comprehend whatever it is you are trying to understand.
Maintaining mental sharpness can be a challenge as you age. After all, having the same old routine can leave little room for mental stimulation. Nevertheless, changing your day-to-day habits may just be the difference between living the rest of your life normally and experiencing cognitive impairment later on. And with that in mind, we can say that these changes are worth it.