How to fight back against cognitive decline

2 May 2023


Memory loss is a natural part of growing old, but there are ways to fight it

Forgetfulness is a phenomenon that often concerns older generations, with over-50s frequently experiencing twinges of anxiety if they forget a phone number or mislay their reading glasses. Significant memory problems could be a sign of dementia, but most older people experience a degree of cognitive decline due to comparatively benign reasons.

Although a very slow loss of brain cells is a natural consequence of ageing, there are plenty of things we can all do to fight back against it. Below, we’ve listed six ways to tackle a growing sense of forgetfulness and woolly-mindedness, from dietary changes to medication reviews…

Improve your vitamin B12 intake

Of all the many vitamins found in our food and supplements, B12 plays a crucial role in supporting the human brain. A vitamin B12 deficiency may directly lead to brain shrinkage, inciting attendant issues like poor memory, confusion and even depression. Your doctor can check your B12 levels and recommend injections, though food supplements are another option. You should also eat B12-rich foods like milk and eggs, salmon and beef.

Get out and socialise

Post-pandemic, it’s easier than ever to stay indoors. Yet isolation and loneliness often lead to depression, manifesting via apathy and poor concentration. Depression can trigger delayed verbal recall, where people speak more slowly. The best way to shake this off is by going outside – it’s hard to ruminate when you’re being bombarded by sensory inputs. Even wallflowers will benefit from talking to new people, using their brain in different ways.

Stay fit and active

This builds on the last point. Joining a fitness class or attending a gym triggers new sensory inputs, causing different parts of your brain to fire and ensuring you sleep better. There’s no need to strive towards Ironman levels of fitness – a few lengths of the local pool would be fine, as would aqua aerobics. Classes or walking groups are great for making new friends, having conversations that keep your brain active while also improving your physical health.

Have your thyroid checked

It might surprise you to learn that the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck is singlehandedly responsible for most of your bodily functions. As such, an underactive thyroid can directly lead to memory loss, difficulty thinking and diminished reaction times. Similarly, an overactive thyroid might manifest through restlessness, a lack of concentration or poor memory. A thyroid function test will indicate if there are problems needing to be addressed.

Stretch your mind

From jigsaws to sudoku, from smartphone games to the Wordle app, there are countless ways to keep your brain active. Regular mental stimulation repels the onset of dementia, regardless of the form that stimulation takes. If you like writing, trying to recall the perfect adjective to use in a short story will stretch your mind as effectively as an Open University course or learning a new language. Aim to do something challenging two or three times every day.

Rebalance your medications

The growing assortment of pills and potions required to manage existing and emerging health conditions in later years may cause conflicts. Anticholinergics can lead to mental confusion, while sleeping tablets and opiates are notorious for diminishing alertness levels. It’s worth fully reading the leaflets supplied with every prescription. Speak to your GP if you’re concerned about possible reactions – it may even be possible to stop taking certain meds.