Neurologist-Approved Ways To Combat Cognitive Decline In Your 20s, 30s, 40s & Beyond
One of the biggest misconceptions about age-related cognitive decline is that there's not much you can do about it while you're younger. We're here to tell you: This is entirely untrue! In fact, neurologists Dean Sherzai, M.D., and Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., directors of the Alzheimer's Prevention Program at Loma Linda University, explain that cognitive decline doesn't just pop up one day out of the blue—it's a spectrum that dwindles over time.
"Cognitive decline is something that happens slowly and gradually, starting, probably in our 30s and 40s," Dean shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
But that spectrum isn't fixed: As he continues, "There's a lot we can do about it." Below, Ayesha and Dean offer a brain health game plan with marching orders for every age—from your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.
In your 20s...
In your 20s, the Sherzais want you to focus on attention. "Attention is the gatekeeper of consciousness," Dean says. "If your attention is affected, everything behind that is affected disproportionately1. You can't memorize, you can't do executive functions..."
And guess what? That lack of attention starts very early: "It's actually something that happens significantly starting in our 20s, and, fortuitously, it's one of the things that we can affect the most, as well," Dean adds. In other words: Your focus depletes as you grow older, so it's important to strengthen it as much as you can while you're young.
In terms of how you can change your relationship with focus, the Sherzais say you might want to quit multitasking. Which, we admit, is a bit difficult in our pervasive, fast-paced working environment, but try to silo your tasks from beginning to end if you can. See, when you multitask, your attention becomes compromised, which creates this perfect storm for cognitive decline: As you get older, your focus becomes more and more affected, and multitasking affects it further.
Additionally, they recommend breathwork and meditation to focus your attention inward. Even if you take a mere five minutes to quiet your mind, try to practice every day if you can: "It is an all-day endeavor that if you take it on, you can significantly not just decline but increase your cognitive capacity2," Dean says.
In your 30s…
Still, you'll want to optimize focus in your 30s. However, the Sherzais say, your 30s are also a great time to work on sharpening your memory. "Focus with intent," Dean says. Activities like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, or word games not only help you focus on the task at hand (thus honing your attention skills) but those complex behaviors are like a workout class for your brain3, Ayesha says.
Pick any complex activity you want—it doesn't necessarily have to be a daily crossword. Take guitar, for example: "When you're playing guitar, you're looking at the notes—that's your left parietal lobe, your language centers. You're processing it visually—your occipital lobe. You're processing it with your mind—that's your frontal lobe. You're being creative—that's your right parietal lobe. You're emotionally involved—that's your limbic system. You are dexterous with your fingers—that's your cerebellum and your motor cortex," Dean explains. "That's no Sudoku. That's your entire brain being burned."
Essentially, choose an activity that takes concentration and skill, and your brain may be better off.
In your 40s and beyond…
Granted, focusing on attention and memory remains important as you grow older—so don't think you're in the clear once you hit 40. However, Dean and Ayesha say that your 40s and beyond are about optimizing executive function, like processing and problem-solving. That includes complex activities, like word games or crosswords, but the key here is finding meaning within those brain-building hobbies.
"It becomes exponentially more important to challenge the brain around your purpose as you get older," Dean says. "We say, 'Don't retire—rewire. Reconnect.'"
So, yes, crossword puzzles are great for your brain, but it's even better for your brain if you actually enjoy the challenge. Find an activity you genuinely love—that sense of purpose does not go unnoticed by your brain. "Managing a team, book clubs, card games, learning to dance, music, taking classes at any age... It should be about more complex things that you enjoy."
In summary, "Challenge yourself around your purpose and you'll take care of memory at 30, focus in your 20s, and then executive function and growth of the brain while in your 40s, 50s, and beyond," Dean says. Managing cognitive decline starts now—no matter your age, there's much you can do to keep your brain health strong.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.