Cognitive change is a normal part of aging. But, contrary to popular belief, not all cognitive processes decline with age. For instance, vocabulary is stable and may actually improve as we grow older. But other things—like memory, conceptual reasoning, and processing speeds—do decline somewhat over time. Some faculties, though, such as perceptual reasoning and processing speeds, are highly heterogeneous.
Fortunately, certain mental exercises can help stave off cognitive decline and boost your memory and productivity.
Once upon a time, stone tools were considered high technology. Not so anymore. Today, we are overwhelmed by the newest in smartphones, apps, and television shows. Although there isn’t much research on how screen time affects adults, health experts have looked at the effects in children. One study found an association between increased screen time and increased inattention in kids. Another study linked increased exposure to screen time to higher levels of depression in adolescents.
So, if digital devices are having such detrimental effects on young, developing minds, it shouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that they may also be having a similar adverse impact on adults. As a physician, your efforts could literally mean the difference between life and death for some patients. Therefore, anything that could minimize your attention or emotional well-being should be set aside.
To combat what has been called the “digital deluge,” try setting aside 30-minute of tech-free time in your daily schedule. During this digital detox, disable your device notifications, refrain from using social media, and avoid mindless technology use (like binge-watching shows on Netflix or aimlessly scrolling through trending YouTube videos). With this extra time, work on challenging your brain with exercises that will help improve mental acuity. For example, aim to memorize the phone number of one close friend or family member during each digital detox period. Some health experts believe that memorization puzzles can help protect your brain cells and strengthen the communications between them.
Make sleep work for you
Anecdotes of people solving problems while they sleep are plentiful, but actual evidence of this phenomenon is limited. Some memory studies, however, have shown that learning-associated sound cues during sleep can help reactivate memories. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers investigated whether manipulating information processing during sleep affects problem incubation and solving. They presented participants with 57 puzzles, each randomly associated with a different sound, in the evening before the participants went to bed. While the participants were sleeping, the researchers played half the sounds paired with unsolved puzzles. In the morning, participants solved 31.7% of cued puzzles compared with 20.5% of non-cued puzzles—a 55% improvement.
“These results demonstrate that cuing puzzle information during sleep can facilitate solving, thus supporting sleep’s role in problem incubation and establishing a new technique to advance understanding of problem solving and sleep cognition,” wrote the authors.
Obviously, using cued and recalled sounds during sleep to solve a problem you have might be impractical. So, experts suggest merely thinking about your problem before you sleep to see if the answer comes to you when you wake up. Keep a journal bedside so that if you do arrive at an answer upon waking, you’ll be able to immediately jot it down—a practice called dream recall. Who knows? The answer to those puzzling symptoms you haven’t been able to diagnose might just come to you after a good night’s sleep or a re-energizing nap.
Diets rich in certain foods that contain key brain-boosting natural ingredients like vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids can help protect and improve your noodle. For instance, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish—like salmon, lake trout, and albacore tuna—help maintain the brain, and they’ve been linked to slower cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer disease. Health experts recommend eating fatty fish at least two times a week.
But if you’re not a fan of fish, try eating some walnuts to help sharpen your brain. Research shows that eating a handful of walnuts a day is linked to enhanced concentration, memory, and processing speeds. And let’s not forget coffee and tea. According to some studies, people with higher caffeine intake perform better on tests of cognitive function and memory retention. Other great brain foods include mushrooms, leafy greens, and berries.
As any physician knows, serial subtraction of sevens (ie, serial 7s) is a measure of concentration that plays an integral part in the Mini-Mental Status Evaluation. But, the benefits of doing mental math extend far beyond this simple test for dementia.
“Results are reported that reading aloud and doing arithmetic can be effective methods of training the brain. Quickly solving simple mathematical problems and reading aloud appear to be highly effective ways of training the brain. The experimental group was given a memory test using subjects ranging from elementary school pupils to adults. Results of these tests showed that the memory of a person was 2-3 times better following simple mathematics and [reading aloud] 2 to 5 days a week,” according to Ryuta Kawashima, MD, a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience.
Specifically, Dr. Kawashima found that when trying to solve simple math problems quickly, various areas on the left and right sides of the brain show significant blood flow on functional MRI.
The power of positivity
In a high-powered analysis of the Framingham Heart Study, researchers tested over 2,000 dementia-free participants (average age: 48.5 years) for abstract reasoning, memory, attention, executive function, and visual perception. They wanted to determine the association of early morning serum cortisol with cognitive performance and brain structural integrity in community-dwelling, dementia-free young and middle-aged adults. They found that more higher cortisol levels were not only linked to worse memory and visual perception, but also lower total cerebral brain and occipital and frontal lobar gray matter volumes. Cortisol is a biomarker for stress so, basically, stress shrinks the brain.
Several researchers have shown that positive thinking as well as surrounding yourself with positive people can help limit the effects of stress and improve overall health. (In fact, optimism is a key factor when it comes to longevity.) So, the next time you find yourself feeling stressed about that bad online patient review or how the pandemic has impacted your finances, remember to take a step back and try some de-stressing techniques. Your brain will thank you.