You Can Stay Mentally Sharp in Your Golden Years

By Temma Ehrenfeld @Temmaehrenfeld
October 05, 2021

Getting older doesn’t have to mean you have significant cognitive decline Even 100-year-olds can stay sharp in their later years.

As we get older, some changes seem unavoidable. For example, hearing steadily declines as we age. By the age of 100, nearly everyone has hearing loss, research shows.

But that doesn’t mean you need to have significant cognitive decline in your later years. About 40 percent of 100-year-olds have dementia, while mental functioning varies in the other 60 percent. Yet, there may be little cognitive decline even in the last years of life after passing the 100-year mark.


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In a study of 330 Dutch 100-year-olds, scientists gave them tests of attention and processing speed, memory, ability to understand spatial relations, skill with words, and executive function. The tests were repeated yearly until death or until it was no longer possible to do the them. The longest follow-up was four years. The average follow-up time was 1.6 years, which means most participants were tested at least twice, a year apart.

In that time, scientists found only a decline in memory but in no other area. Some of the patients who died had amyloid plaques, a marker for Alzheimer's disease, in their brains, yet those plaques were not linked to their cognitive performance. Carrying an APOE ε4 or an APOE ε2 allele, two gene markers for Alzheimer’s risk, also didn’t make a difference in this group.

The results suggest that these elders have “mechanisms of resilience” to overcome the risk factors for Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, the scientists wrote.

What helped the best performers? Next to physical health, education, using your mind frequently, and IQ, a test of intelligence, were all associated with cognitive performance on these tests.

You can increase your chances of a healthy mind in old age. Here’s how:

  • Exercise. Your best strategy to stay sharp is to exercise. Exercise may help even after you have developed memory issues. It may be especially helpful if you carry the APOE ε4 gene, research suggests.
  • Eat a healthful diet. The Mediterranean-style diet, which limits red meat and junk food, is a path to better heart health and can protect your mind as well, even slowing the progression of dementia.
  • Don’t drink heavily. Drinking until you pass out is linked to twice the chance of dementia later, one large study found. In general, heavy drinking over time increases your Alzheimer’s risk.
  • Sleep. Getting by on fewer than seven to eight hours is linked to poorer scores on tests, though researchers don’t know the long-term connection to dementia.
  • Mental stimulation. Education may not be as important as the habit of seeking out mental challenges. Read, write, do crosswords, play challenging games, discuss tough questions, learn new dances, play music — whatever you find engaging and a little challenging. Research suggests you could delay memory decline if you’re vulnerable.
  • Wear hearing aids if you need them. Hearing loss is standard in old age. It is a risk factor for dementia, but hearing aids cut your risk, research shows.
  • Stay social. Strong social connections may be as important as physical activity and a healthy diet for your overall health and mental function. Depression and loneliness are linked to faster cognitive decline.
  • Group games have the triple benefit of being social, physical, and possibly stimulating as well. If you’re still mobile, consider these:
  • Shuffleboard: You’ll win if you strategically knock your opponent’s disks out of the high score zones and slide yours in.
  • Pickleball: You’ll hit a lightweight ball over a net while following certain rules and aim to outscore your rival.
  • Bocce: You and your opponent both try to roll balls towards a target.
  • Croquet: Knock your balls through a six-hoop course and reach the center peg.


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October 05, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN