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Maintaining Cognitive Skills Later in Life

Ruth Kandel, MD's picture
Maintaining Cognitive Skills
Maintaining Cognitive Skills

Use it or lose it. That’s the basic philosophy behind maintaining cognitive abilities later in life. For busy adults, this can be easy enough. Days are filled juggling work, appointments and household chores, providing plenty of stimulation to keep cognitive thinking skills sharp. I, however, often see seniors adjusting to a slower daily pace and it can take more effort to create opportunities to exercise these skills regularly. According to a major study completed by the Institute for Aging Research (IFAR) at Hebrew SeniorLife, it is worth that extra effort.

From 1996 to 2002, IFAR was one of six sites involved in the largest study to date testing exercises designed to improve performance in one of three cognitive areas: speed of processing, reasoning and memory. Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, the study was called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, and included 2,802 healthy individuals, still living independently, between 65 and 94 years of age. The study confirmed the effectiveness of cognitive interventions in improving specific cognitive abilities.  In 2011, ACTIVE participants returned to complete their 10th annual follow-up assessments.

It has been suggested that the brain depends on environmental stimulation to remain active and flexible throughout our lifetime.  This means that you may be able to maintain and improve cognitive thinking skills as you age, as long as you are willing to work on it and challenge yourself. 

Here are ways to work cognitive exercises into your daily life:

  • Daily crossword and Sudoku puzzles can be great games for seniors, but make sure to keep progressing to higher levels.
  • If you enjoy reading, join a book discussion group to engage in dialogue about what you’ve learned.
  • Don’t indulge in too much mindless television. Instead, stay up-to-date on the news, politics and issues you care about.
  • Practice remembering and reciting a list of words every day. Constantly add to the list to make this exercise challenging.
  • Use association to maintain and boost your memory. For example, when meeting someone for the first time and they have the same name as your cousin; note that association to use in the future.
  • Stay responsible for your own bills, medications, errands and scheduling appointments as much as possible. These seemingly mundane tasks are important in exercising reasoning skills.

 More information on maintaining cognitive thinking skills.

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Geriatrician, Hebrew SeniorLife, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Ruth Kandel obtained her bachelor's degree from State University of New York, Buffalo and her medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She completed a residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital and a geriatrics fellowship at Bedford Veteran's Administration Hospital/Boston University Medical Center. She provides inpatient primary care and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Her academic interests include Alzheimer's disease, memory disorders, and...

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