Looking after your thinking skills
We all want to stay healthy and active in later life, so we’re interested in keeping fit mentally as well as physically. Increasingly, we’re learning what we can do to keep our thinking skills sharp as we age.
When it comes to keeping our minds sharp, some of the advice can be confusing or contradictory. From fish oils to physical activity, from B vitamins to brain training, open the newspaper and it’s easy to find claims on what helps and what harms.
But which claims can we trust? What do we reliably know about what will help us stay sharp as we age?
What does the science say about protecting your thinking skills?
We know that our thinking skills change very gradually throughout our lives. Most of us lose a little of some of them and this doesn’t usually affect independence or quality of life. But differences between us mean that some people’s thinking skills improve over their lives, and some experience greater degrees of decline.
Research is looking at a wide range of factors that might be involved in healthy ageing of our thinking skills, or that increase the risk of more serious decline.
Many of these studies are on factors that we can influence ourselves, that is, aspects of lifestyle. Evidence suggests, for example, that taking exercise and engaging in new activities are linked with better thinking skills in later life.
Some lifestyle choices increase the risk of more decline, including smoking. In addition, some health conditions are now known to be associated with more decline, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
The basic message from research is that we have much more control over our destiny than we previously thought. How our thinking skills change over our life course is not set in stone - not everything is in our DNA.
What the experts say about lifestyle factors and thinking skills
Experts have summarised the evidence on the relationship between the factors in the list below and thinking skills in later life. Click on any factor to read more.
Alcohol and caffeine
Brain blood vessels
Brain health and mental wellbeing
Heart health (cardiovascular factors)
Speaking more than one language
Why you should do more than one thing
The evidence indicates that we can help ourselves to stay sharp as we grow older. It also tells us to take a range of steps because no one single factor is a ‘magic bullet’.
Rather, each of the factors associated with healthy cognitive ageing has an effect and these effects are thought to add up to help protect our thinking skills as we age. And we need to avoid the harmful factors.
Overall, evidence so far bears out the saying ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. The things we would do to keep our body fit and healthy are also associated with staying mentally sharp in later life.
Top tips for staying sharp in later life
Based on the evidence so far, here are practical things that we can do to help stay sharp in later life.
1. Keep active
Get moving throughout the day and do physical exercises and activities that you enjoy – or try new ones. An active lifestyle and regular exercise are linked to healthier brains and sharper thinking skills in later life.
2. Don’t smoke
If you smoke, it’s best to stop. Smoking is linked with having a thinner cortex, the brain’s outer layer that is crucial for thinking skills. When you stop smoking, some reversal of this damage may be possible, but this can be very slow so it’s better to stop sooner rather than later.
3. Have regular check-ups
Have check-ups with your doctor to see if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. These conditions are associated with higher risk of decline in thinking skills, particularly from middle-age.
4. Eat a healthy diet
Eat a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, beans and cereals; moderate in fish, dairy products and wine; and limited in red meat and poultry. This Mediterranean-style diet is linked to better brain health.
5. Maintain a healthy weight
Manage your weight through healthy eating and physical activity. Being overweight may be a risk factor for accelerated decline in thinking skills. A healthy weight is better for physical health too.
6. Take up a new activity
Take up activities or hobbies you haven’t done before. New activities might help improve thinking skills in later life as they challenge us in new ways. If you do activities in a group, the increased social interaction may play a role too.
7. Look after your sleep
Aim for an average of seven to eight hours sleep a day as this amount is related to better brain and physical health in older age. Try to get most of it at night, with only short daytime naps.
8. Learn another language
Learn and practise a language new to you. Learning and using more than one language is linked with better thinking skills in later life. And it’s never too late to start – if anything, the benefits of speaking multiple languages might increase with age.
With thanks for this page to scientists in the University of Edinburgh's Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology.