Combating Cognitive Decline: What the Trends Are and What You Can Do For Yourself
October 16, 2020
As we age, it is certainly expected that we will experience cognitive decline to some degree. This is an unfortunate but natural part of aging, so mild problems with our memory, judgement, and general cognition are not unreasonable to expect.
Dementia, however, which is a more serious and dramatic form of cognitive decline, is not exactly considered to be a normal part of aging. Unfortunately, there are currently no treatments to cure or even prevent dementia, despite the ongoing research surrounding the condition.
Interestingly enough, recent research has uncovered some trends regarding cognitive decline. Specifically, it seems as though boomers are at the greatest risk of cognitive decline, as studies have shown that they actually display significantly decreased cognitive function compared to their generational counterparts. Nonetheless, the factors that have been identified by scientists even outside of these studies relate to all generations, and potentially hold the key to lowering an individual’s risk of cognitive decline with aging.
What Exactly Has Recent Research on Cognitive Decline Uncovered?
Recent research has shown that boomers are potentially at the greatest risk for cognitive decline, as they have displayed declining intelligence compared to their generational counterparts.
A recent health and retirement study done by The Ohio State University compared cognitive function across different birth cohorts to see if there were any significant differences across generations in terms of cognitive impairment and risk factors.
The research found that, in general, cognition scores increased since they were first recorded, up until the boomer generation, where they actually hit a wall. What is quite interesting about this finding is that all ethnicities, women, and men were affected just the same. There were not any differences or confounding variables that allowed any cognition differences in these categories.
What also proved interesting was that the boomers who were found to be most affected in terms of their cognitive impairment had higher levels of various mental and physical health conditions. More specifically, these boomers had increased instances of depression, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and inactivity. In general, boomers are more likely to have chronic diseases and psychiatric issues.
Looking at the past, there has generally been a favorable trend in dementia with aging, and this is likely due to better treatment for conditions like diabetes and heart disease, which the researchers make note of. However, if no effective treatments or interventions are found, the stall that has been observed in the trend as it relates to the boomer generation may mean that the instances of dementia could explode.
The idea that the boomer generation could potentially reverse past favorable trends in dementia and cognitive decline brings about a lot of questions as to what could be causing this. This study, along with other research, has begun to ask these questions and start to uncover some possible factors that could relate to increased instances of cognitive decline.
What Factors Might Be Influencing the Trend in Cognitive Decline Between Generations?
Certain factors that are unique to the Baby Boomer generation may have something to do with why they exhibit higher levels of cognitive impairment.
One topic that the researchers note is the association between chronic inflammation and psychiatric problems, which were notably higher in boomers. The study of the gut-brain axis has long been a topic of interest actually, which involves an extensive and complicated relationship that our guts have with our cognition.
The first factor that the researchers made note of was actually antibiotics. 1950 to 1970 was considered to be the golden era of antibiotic discovery, which just so happens to mean that boomers were primarily the ones who were using them and benefitting from them. If you don’t know exactly what antibiotics do, the simple way to put it is that they fight off bacteria, more specifically the bacteria that might be causing illness and infection in our bodies. The important thing, however, is that most antibiotics actually kill off the good and the bad bacteria that we have in our bodies. Yes, we have good bacteria too!
The microbes that we have in our guts, a.k.a. microbiota, unfortunately fall victim to the broad-spectrum action of antibiotics, which limits the beneficial role that they typically have in our health. Unfortunately for boomers, the beneficial role that microbiota have was not necessarily fully appreciated back then, which means that a lot of boomers actually were overprescribed antibiotics and often took a dozen courses before their teen years.
Another topic of interest as it relates to boomers and their increased cognitive decline is processed food. Just as the cognition measures began to drop again, fast-food was born. The impact that processed food had is actually quite similar to that of antibiotics in terms of having an effect on the good bacteria we typically have in our gut. A prominent discovery in the realm of processed food was the ability to remove fiber from corn and wheat in order to create refined “foodstuffs.” This could serve as the source material for a lot of the typical processed foods we have become accustomed to, such as white bread and corn chips.
What was not understood, however, was that fiber actually is crucial to the survival and effectiveness of our gut microbiota. To explain this more specifically, the microbes utilize fiber in order to produce substances that keep the lining of our gut healthy and functioning properly. Our microbes are actually our first line of defense against quickly mutating pathogens that can potentially threaten our health. The problem is, starving these microbes can cause them to leak into the bloodstream, where they can cause systemic inflammation. This is likely behind the chronic diseases that we said were of higher incidence among the boomer population.
Though factors like fast food and antibiotics may have greatly affected the boomer population in a unique way, it is important to remember that these things still impact other generations. If they are potentially responsible for influencing the trends in cognitive decline among boomers, they can still influence the cognitive function and risk factors for other generations. It is also important to remember that cognitive decline is still common within older adults, and there are many factors that influence cognitive decline with aging.
What Can I Do To Potentially Protect Myself Against Cognitive Decline?
Though there is no cure or prevention for conditions like dementia, scientists believe that there are still things you can do to limit your risk for cognitive decline.
Both the researchers in the study we discussed above, as well as other scientists who research cognition and aging believe that there are things we can do to, at the very least, protect ourselves against cognitive decline as we age. These things are not only crucial for boomers to consider, but anyone who wants to lower their risk of cognitive decline in the future:
- Exercise. Though the reasons are not entirely clear, exercise has great benefits for your gut microbiota. It also helps you build muscle, which can actually help your immune system fight off pathogens. In general, exercise lowers your risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes, which also relates to lowering your risk of cognitive decline.
- Use fewer antibiotics. Antibiotics are one of the most wonderful medical advancements, and should obviously not be entirely avoided. However, it is important to have an understanding of the impact that they have on the good bacteria in your gut, so that you can ensure that they are not overprescribed to you.
- Improve your diet. This is another big one that almost always shows up in improving health. Try incorporating more fibrous veggies and fruits, whole grains, nuts, and beans. Include moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, and fish, while limiting red meat consumption.
- Sleep. Getting more consistent, good-quality sleep can improve your overall health while also possibly limiting your risk for cognitive decline with aging. Research has consistently shown that people who regularly get less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep perform worse on mental function tests.
At the end of the day, certain populations like the boomer generation may be more at risk for cognitive decline with age, but there are many factors that could play a role in the cognitive function of all of us as we become older adults. Understanding what factors influence our cognitive function as well as what we can do to keep our minds sharp will help you lower your risk of cognitive decline that is expected with aging.