I see the term “aging gracefully” being used quite often these days.
It probably has different meanings for different people — but for me, aging gracefully is less about what’s on the outside and more about what’s on the inside.
It means staying healthy, making sure my heart is in working order, my blood sugar is optimal and, most importantly, that my brain is humming along and my memory is sharp.
But how do we age gracefully, especially when it comes to memory — the part of us that defines who we are and affects how independently we can function when we get older?
University of Alberta neuroscientists have identified 10 different factors for maintaining a healthy memory and for avoiding cognitive decline once you pass 55.
Targeted intervention steps for lasting memory
The scientists started from one big idea…
Since a decline in memory is one of the first signs of cognitive and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, if they could identify the factors that keep it sharp and healthy, it could be possible to delay or even prevent those diseases.
The team used machine learning to analyze data from a longitudinal study based in Edmonton, Alberta, and discovered 10 factors that make it significantly more likely that you can maintain a healthy memory (nine of which are at least partially in your control and only one that is determined by your genetics).
#1 — Being female
This is the one factor you have no say over, but if you’re a woman, you can feel a little better in the fact that you’re more likely to maintain your memory and cognitive function as you age, merely because of your sex.
#2 — Being educated
If you didn’t continue your education after high school, it’s never too late to learn new things.
#3 — Engaging in more social activities
Do you spend time with friends and try to meet new people or are you a homebody? It’s clear that social butterflies carry far less risk of cognitive decline.
#4 — Participates in novel cognitive activities
This could be working on a new program on your computer, learning a second language or anything that encourages you to pick up new skills.
#5 — Having a lower heart rate
You can lower your heart rate by exercising, eating a balanced diet, limiting alcohol and caffeine and staying hydrated.
#6 — Having a higher body mass index
This one seems strange since none of us want to have a high body mass index. After all, how would we button our pants? But the truth is both high and low body mass indexes have been linked to Alzheimer’s. So, like Goldilocks, you want to choose not too much and not too little, but just right.
#7 — Participating in more self-maintenance activities
If you don’t make it a priority to take care of yourself, it makes sense that you would be at higher risk for any number of diseases. So, take time for yourself each day by doing things like relaxing in a warm bath, going for a walk or getting a massage.
#8 — Living with companions
Living with others helps ward off depression, keeps you more active and improves your social life. Whether your companion is a spouse, a child or a friend, sharing your home with someone could help to delay or prevent dementia.
#9 — Walking faster
You can increase the speed of your gait by strengthening and stretching your leg muscles, taking shorter strides and maintaining a good posture.
#10 — Having less depressive symptoms
OK, it’s true that this one might be only partially in your control, but there are things you can do to lessen the depression you may be feeling. Options to try include exercise, focusing on the good in your life, avoiding living in the past, making plans for the future, spending time in the bright, morning sunlight and taking up yoga.
As Peggy McFall, lead author and research associate in the Department of Psychology puts it, “These modifiable risk and protective factors may be converted to potential intervention targets for the dual purpose of promoting healthy memory aging or preventing or delaying accelerated decline, impairment and perhaps dementia.”
In other words, by working on the areas above where you fall short, you might be able to ward off Alzheimer’s.