Our expert explains how brain-boosting activities can keep your mind sharp as you age.
As Canada’s population continues to age, rates of dementia are expected to increase. A recent report from the Alzheimer Society of Canada predicts that nearly one million people will be living with dementia by the end of 2030, which could potentially lead to loss of independence and reduced quality of life for those affected. Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute researcher Dr. Ryan Falck explains how lifestyle changes could play an important role in preserving cognitive function and promoting healthy brain aging.
Q: What is cognitive decline and how does it occur?
A: While our knowledge and wisdom often increase with age, we tend to see some declines in cognitive abilities like memory and processing speed; however, some people experience these declines at a faster rate. Cognitive decline refers to these deficits in cognition that are greater than expected for age and education level.
How cognitive decline occurs is not entirely clear. Current research indicates that potential causes may include changes in connectivity between different parts of the brain, poor blood supply in the brain leading to shrinkage (i.e., atrophy) of brain tissue, and the development of dementia pathology. Modifiable lifestyle factors, such as sleep and physical activity, also play an important role in one’s risk of having cognitive decline.
Q: How are cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease related?
A: Cognitive decline exists along a spectrum, from mild to severe. Mild cognitive impairment is cognitive decline that does not affect a person’s ability to live independently. When cognitive decline is severe enough to impact daily function and independence, dementia is diagnosed. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, which is characterized by the development of amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, as well as notable atrophy of brain tissue and declines in cognitive function.
Q: What are the early indicators of cognitive decline, and when should I consider seeking medical guidance?
A: Indicators of cognitive decline may vary across individuals. The most common indicators include changes in memory, attention, ability to carry out routine activities or tasks, decision making or mood. If you or those close to you start noticing changes in your cognitive abilities, like being more forgetful or not remembering important things or people, it might be a good idea to speak with your doctor. To assess cognitive decline, comprehensive and repeated neuropsychological testing is recommended.
Q: Can daily habits, like mindfulness practice or playing brain games, impact cognitive health in the long term?
A: Currently, there is some evidence that cognitive training — such as Luminosity, sudoku or crossword puzzles — can have some positive effects on cognitive health. Less is known about the effect of mindfulness training, although early research indicates it might be beneficial. Whether these types of activities can impact cognitive health in the long term still needs further study.
Q: What are other lifestyle changes I can implement to help preserve cognitive function and boost brain health as I age?
A: One key factor is exercising regularly. Getting at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity reduces your risk of dementia by up to 28 per cent. Our research in the Aging, Mobility and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory has been instrumental in the inclusion of exercise as a frontline approach for the treatment of mild cognitive impairment, and highlights the importance of exercise for maintaining cognitive and brain health.
Q: Is there anything I can do if I am already experiencing symptoms of cognitive decline or dementia?
A: While research into pharmaceutical treatment options for mild cognitive impairment or dementia are still in their infancy, many lifestyle factors can be beneficial for people living with cognitive decline or dementia. Research shows that exercise can have positive effects on brain structure, brain function, and improve cognitive abilities in older adults with or without cognitive decline. We also know that good quality sleep can help ward off cognitive decline, in addition to brain-boosting activities and social interactions. Having a healthy nutrient-rich diet may also be beneficial for maintaining cognitive health post-dementia diagnosis.
Q: What does the future of cognitive health research look like?
A: Artificial intelligence could soon help us improve our ability to diagnose and identify early signs of dementia from biobehavioural data. For example, recent work from Cardiff University in the UK has developed an artificial intelligence algorithm which can predict Parkinson’s disease from actigraphy smartwatch data — which measures physical activity and sleep — with more accuracy than any current method.
Currently, I am developing a deep learning algorithm — a type of machine learning — to predict cognitive performance using actigraphy smartwatch data. I am also exploring how sleep might impact the effects of exercise on cognitive health.