As we get older, there is a natural decline in some of our thinking abilities, also known as cognition. We may find that we misplace our keys a little more or certain words just don’t come to mind like they once did. You may be trying to put a new table together and you need that thing…the tool that grabs the thingy on the screw? But for the life of you the words “wrench” and “nut” just won’t come out. This is quite common as we age and even more so if under stress.

When do these difficulties become a real red flag for a potential underlying problem, such as Dementia? Well for one thing, if you can remember your memory problems it’s probably not so bad. People with serious memory difficulties are usually not upset by their symptoms because they don’t remember that they are having trouble. However, just because it’s not serious does not mean you don’t have a real problem brewing. When the frequency and intensity of these difficulties increase, it may be time to see a neurologist. Frequency meaning these difficulties are happening much more often than usual. It’s one thing to misplace your phone last week, but if you are misplacing it every day there may be more to it. Intensity meaning what you forgot was significant. It’s one thing to forget the name of a former co-worker you haven’t seen for a few years, but if you forget the name of your spouse or pet this is not so typical.

There are many ways we can decrease the rate of cognitive decline in our life. One of the most significant ways to prolong healthy neuron firing for cognition is to learn something new.  Most people experience noticeable declines after they retire. The brain needs new and novel stimulation to work optimally. If retirement leads to a routine lifestyle that does not offer opportunities for recalling new information and for solving new problems, then those brain cells are no longer considered as necessary as they once were when you had those demands (such as when you were working).  As the old adage says, “Use it or lose it”. Repeating stories of the past or doing the same hobbies you have always done for the past ten years are not stimulating your neurons the same way as if you were recalling or learning something completely new. Here are some tips for keeping those short term memory, problem solving and word finding skills intact:

1. Try taking a class at the local community college, an on-line class or even volunteer at your favorite local establishment.

2. Sudoku and crossword puzzles. Studies show that people over 50 years old who do puzzles have brain function equivalent to 10 years younger than their age. On short-term memory tests, puzzle takers had brain function equivalent to eight years younger.

3. Get a pet. Pets have been shown to have many cognitive and overall health benefits. When you share your love with a pet it releases serotonin and dopamine, which calms and relaxes you. They also get you out of bed every day and keep you moving. Physical activity is a must for optimal brain function!

4. Make TV time a brain exercise. There are many ways you can challenge your brain when watching television. Try looking at one character in the show, then look away and try to recall what they were wearing. What color was their shirt? Was it long or short sleeved? If you are regularly watching a TV series, then try to recap out loud what happened in the previous episode before you begin the next one. Be as detailed as you can and use the actual names of the characters. You can also do this with news stories.

5. Get social. When we get together with friends, even if only by phone, we engage many parts of the brain. When they ask you what you’ve been up to, you are using your short term memory to respond. In order for you to engage in conversation you not only have to be a good listener; you have to remember what they just said. Your word finding skills get challenged the more details you provide when telling them how you’ve been.

6. Try giving directions to your favorite place using the names of the streets and as many details as possible. For example, “You make a left on Highway 441 and after you pass the Shell gas station on your right you will get in the right turning lane.” This engages not only your explicit memory necessary for those word finding skills and remembering the names of new people, but also challenges your visual memory.

7. Get speech therapy. Did you know speech therapists (also known as speech-language pathologists) are trained to work with cognitive declines? If you are over 65 years old and noticing a decline in your memory or other thinking abilities, you can get help. First get yourself worked up by a neurologist to rule out any underlying issues. Then, take advantage of those Medicare benefits and get your cognition evaluated by a speech-language pathologist. They can create a custom brain exercise program specifically for you and your deficits. You will then get one-on-one training to improve those areas, just as you would with a physical therapist for improving your leg strength. For more info visit Cobalt Therapy or check out our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CobaltTherapy.