• Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Cognitive Decline

    by Dr. Harlan South
    on May 23rd, 2018

Preventing Cognitive Decline

Cognitive decline eventually happens to almost everyone as they age. It’s a difficult part of senescence, which many people have experienced through caring for a loved one. It results from a combination of life habits, genetic factors, trauma, injury, or even just the gradual wearing-out of one’s cognitive architecture.

Still, whatever the cause, it’s been demonstrated in clinical trials that lifestyle changes can ward off many age-related cognitive decline. Put simply, there are a few simple changes you can make to your lifestyle today that will have a strong and lasting impact on your cognitive health for the rest of your life.

Take Care of Your Body

Your mind depends on your body. In a practical sense, your body produces the raw materials and neurotransmitters to keep your brain functioning.  Changes in that corporeal machinery can exacerbate cognitive decline. For instance, be physically active most days. Start with something as simple as working up a sweat for ten minutes a day. Gradually increase the duration every week so that you can be active for over 60 minutes per day. Keep your body engaged!

While you’re staying active, take steps to protect your body as well. Cranial trauma is one of the most significant risk factors for cognitive decline even decades after the injury. For example, wear a seatbelt when in a car. Wear a helmet and mouth guard when playing sports.

You should also manage risk factors for diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. Beyond staying active, stay drug free, limit alcohol intake, have whole plant-based foods, and make sure to get quality sleep every night. On the subject of nutrition …

Eat Well

Make sure your diet is fuelling your body appropriately. Make sure your nutrition needs are in line with your body’s needs.  Avoid most animal protein since it is high in saturated fats, mercury, arsenic, lead, and heavy metals which are difficult to clear.  For example, any type of fish is high in mercury. Eggs, poultry, red meat, and dairy products are high in saturated fats, cadmium, and arsenic irrelevant of the food source (i.e,. Grass-fed, organic, antibiotic-free).  These foods directly lead to insulin resistance and cancer formation. Instead, replace with dark leafy green vegetables, avocados, legumes, and whole grains.

Your diet should be interesting and varied, as well. Beyond the practical benefits of good nutrition, it’s important to keep your mind and your senses stimulated. Cognitive decline is associated with a lack of variety, or too much predictability over a long period.

Keep Your Mind Engaged

Indeed, your mind is in may ways like a muscle. With disuse, it atrophies. It’s very important to keep your mind stimulated and engaged, especially later in life. There are a number of different ways you can support your cognition through training.

For instance, a new hobby or an academic course can be a great way to reforge long forgotten neural pathways, and stimulate action across disused parts of your mind. Hobbies, in particular, are often great for stimulating spatial awareness and coordination, as well as fine motor skills, which all often fade from general use over time.

More deliberate cognitive training might include things like crosswords or sudoku. Completing a puzzle, or solving a math or engineering problem, are wonderful ways to keep your mind sharp. Video games can be another valuable option. In several studies, it has been shown that playing video games helps train visual-spatial awareness, and decreases the time spent on decision making, both of which imply several important changes to cognitive architecture. So long as you’re giving yourself problems to solve, your brain should be engaged.

But it’s not all work! Just as important for preventing cognitive decline is play. Be sure you’re making the time to simply be at play for a spell, as often you can. That’s often easier to do with friends, family, or companions.

Stay Socially Connected

Isolation is very, very detrimental for human well-being. Humans are inherently social creatures. Social isolation is linked to depression, cognitive decline, and early mortality, regardless of other contributing factors. If you want to avert that cognitive decline, it’s imperative that you maintain a stable social network. Local events, clubs, or regular meetings will go a long way toward developing and maintaining that social infrastructure. Later in life, it helps to dovetail it with a regular activity; maybe walking a dog, or joining a weekly poker game.

Manage Your Mental Health

One last very severe risk factor for cognitive decline is mental ill-health. Conditions like anxiety, depression, and others can severely exacerbate cognitive decline, especially later in life. Staying on top of your mental health, either through lifestyle changes, therapy, psychopharmacology, or other options will have a dramatic impact on your overall cognition. In some cases, it can prevent certain kinds of cognitive decline outright.


Dr. South has been practicing medicine since completing his Internal Medicine residency in 1999. During his early tenure as an outpatient internist, he incorporated innovative aspects of preventative medicine into his practice, improving the patient experience with the principles of integrative medicine. Some of the protocols he integrated were advanced cholesterol laboratory testing, proactive supplementation through bio-identical hormones, and a DNA-based weight-loss evaluation.

Dr. South has since joined Advanced Health to focus on practicing integrative medicine. Incorporating cognitive lifestyle changes with dietary health, and hormone replacement therapies into his practice of medicine. To get in touch, contact Advanced Health. Dr Harlan South can be reached directly at 415-376-6317.

Author Dr. Harlan South Dr. Harlan South is a Holistic Integrative and Age Management Physician located in Pacific Heights, San Francisco.

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