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Are you struggling with a foggy memory
or the inability to focus?

Here’s what you can do about it.




Cognitive decline is a normal part of the ageing process, but being aware of some key risk factors can help slow down the process, and keep your mind (and body) healthy. 


What is cognitive decline, exactly?

Dr Surita van Heerden, a geriatric psychiatrist at Cape Town Mind and Memory, an organisation that deals with the management of memory problems, dementia and neuropsychiatric and psychological disorders in elderly patients, explains that cognitive decline is the deterioration in intellectual functioning. “It includes trouble in one or more cognitive domains, like memory, concentration, thinking and judgment,” she says. 

It’s important to remember that ageing memory loss is quite different to the memory loss associated with dementia. While most people will notice changes in their intellectual functioning as they age, this rate of decline is highly variable from person to person. 

Cognitive decline doesn’t only mean memory impairment – it can also present as a decline in learning, attention, language ability (like finding the right word or remembering names), visio-spatial ability (getting lost or not being able to park, for example) and social cognition (how people understand and act in social situations).  

Dementia (known clinically as major neurocognitive disorder) is diagnosed when the normal age-related cognitive decline becomes more progressive or severe, affecting one’s ability to function independently and causing difficulty in daily activities like managing finances, driving, doing housework, preparing meals and taking medication. 

If you’re concerned about your own mental wellbeing or that of someone close to you, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. “Early diagnosis and treatment is always encouraged,” says Dr Van Heerden. 


What you can do about it

“We can’t change our age and family history, but there are some factors we can control,” says Jill Robson, the Western Cape regional manager for Alzheimer’s South Africa

Dr Van Heerden agrees: “Obesity, smoking, heavy alcohol intake, high cholesterol and hypertension (high blood pressure) are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, and all of these factors can be controlled from a young age.” She adds that managing stress and depression may also help to delay memory loss later in life. In fact, memory issues in older adults are often due to increased anxiety. 


Take the following steps to help delay and reduce the symptoms of cognitive decline:


Stay fit

“What’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” says Robson. Aerobic fitness helps to keep the brain in good working order, and improves blood flow. “Exercise also keeps weight, blood pressure and cholesterol under control, while helping to prevent diabetes – another risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Robson.  

Eat right

A Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables, fruits and fish can help to keep the brain healthy, says Dr Van Heerden. Although there is still more research to be done in the field, there is some support for the use of vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin E, and the antioxidants found in colourful fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, tea, dark chocolate and red wine, as helpers in lowering the risk of dementia. 

Consider taking a daily multivitamin supplement that contains omegas, and incorporate healthy snacks like mixed nuts and seeds into your diet.

Give your brain a workout

Research shows that people who engage in more mentally stimulating activities may have a lower risk of developing dementia. Dr Van Heerden suggests trying activities that involve the processing of information, like travelling, playing games, learning a musical instrument and reading. 

Robson’s advice is to stay mentally active by challenging your brain. “Remember the adage ‘use it or lose it’. Putting your brain to work on a regular basis keeps it intact,” she says. 

Connect with others

“Social ties keep loneliness and depression at bay, which is better for your brain,” says Robson. Social interactions can also be intellectually stimulating and significantly reduce one’s risk of dementia. “Stay in touch with friends and family, take part in social events, volunteer and engage in community activities. It keeps your spirit young as well as your brain!” urges Robson.


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