University of Utah Health Care: Maintaining Cognitive Skills With Aging

Why do we experience a decline in cognitive skills with aging?

• Normal decline is in our “hardware.”

o Just as our circulatory system ages and becomes less efficient with pumping blood, our cognitive system also shows signs of wear and tear. For example, our processing speed (e.g., how quickly you can figure out a restaurant tip) slows down across the lifespan.

• Disuse in later life.

o When we are younger, demands of every day life engage us cognitively (e.g., work, raising children, running a household). When we retire or become empty nesters, there are fewer life demands that engage us. Unless we purposely add new cognitive challenges, decline can and does occur from disuse.

• Disease can lead to an abnormal decline in cognition, but this is relatively rare.

How can a person fight this decline?

• Engage in cognitive exercises

• Compensate for normal losses with external aides

o Use calendars to keep track of appointments, make notes and lists to keep track of errands, or use pill boxes to keep track of medicines. Other examples include watch alarms, date books and electronic organizers.

• Medical interventions and treatments

Cognitive Exercises

Cognitive exercises strengthen the brain muscle. Just as any muscle in the body gets weak from disuse, the brain (and cognition) needs regular exercise to keep fit. Research suggests we can strengthen our brain through three types of exercise:

• Physical activity

o Physical activity can include walking, swimming, biking, ping-pong, yoga, etc. This type of activity sends nutrients and oxygen to the brain, so that it functions more effectively. You should consult your physician before starting any exercise program.

• Cognitive activity

o Cognitive activity could include crossword puzzles, reading, playing cards, Sudoku, participating in an organization (e.g., church or professional group), arts & crafts, or taking a class at a community college. The more engaging the activity, the greater the benefits. Watching TV is not as good as reading a book.

• Social activity

o Social activity usually involves interacting with other adults, such as visiting with friends or relatives.

For maximum benefit

• Gradually increase the demand

• “Cross-train”

• Involve all three activities (physical, cognitive, social)

For more information on this topic and the University’s Center for Alzheimer’s Care, Imaging and Research, visit

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