If You Stop Doing This, It Could Speed Up Cognitive Decline, Experts Warn


Cognitive health encompasses our ability to think, learn, and remember—and as we age, retaining these abilities is crucial to our ongoing health and independence. The good news is that by establishing healthy everyday habits, we may have some control over how our brains function.

One habit in particular seems to help protect against cognitive decline as you age, and if you stop doing it, your brain health could suffer. Read on to learn which one activity may help preserve your cognitive function—and what to do if you've already given it up for good.

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Certain habits can help slow down cognitive decline.

As experts will tell you, significant cognitive decline is not considered a normal part of aging. You should always discuss cognitive changes with your doctor if they interrupt your everyday life. However, some otherwise healthy individuals may notice minor changes to their memory and other cognitive functions over time, and this does not necessarily indicate a serious brain disorder, such as dementia.

Your habits can play an important role in whether or not—and at what speed—cognitive changes progress. "Small changes may really add up," says the National Institute on Aging. They recommend following certain steps to help improve your cognitive health little by little: in particular, taking care of your physical health, eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, keeping your mind active and challenged, staying socially engaged, managing stress and mental health, and reducing the risks to your cognitive health.

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If you stop doing this, it could speed up cognitive losses.

A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychology (IJGP) analyzed 10 years worth of data collected from over 9,000 seniors. The subjects completed over-the-phone cognitive assessments that measured memory, speed of mental processing, knowledge, and language. Additionally, the subjects were asked whether they were active drivers, former drivers, or had never driven before. The team learned that subjects who had once driven but then stopped demonstrated a faster rate of cognitive decline than active drivers.

"This study suggests that older adults without independent driving mobility may be a high-risk group for accelerated cognitive decline," the researchers concluded.

Researchers believe the relationship between driving and cognitive abilities is bidirectional.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that there's a link between driving abilities and cognitive function—after all, if you begin exhibiting signs of cognitive decline, you may stop driving as a result. However, the team points out that they believe causation runs both ways: experiencing cognitive decline results in cessation of driving, and stopping driving also appears to result in cognitive decline "even after controlling for baseline cognitive functioning and health status."

"Prior research has indicated that poor cognitive functioning is associated with risk of driving cessation," said Moon Choi, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Aging and Technology Policy Lab at the University of Kentucky. "However, our findings suggest that it may also be the case that driving cessation itself is a risk factor for accelerated cognitive decline over time. This suggests that the relationship between driving cessation and cognitive functioning may be bidirectional," she told the Association for Psychological Science.

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If you stop driving, you may be able to offset the negative effects.

For some people—especially those with advanced signs of cognitive decline—driving is simply not a safe option. Not only does this eliminate an everyday task that requires complex cognitive engagement, it also has the potential to limit one's social ties to others.

The study authors suggest that those individuals "may benefit from targeted interventions that promote social, psychological, and cognitive engagement." The National Institute on Aging says there are a wide range of ways to keep the mind active: reading, playing games, taking or teaching classes, working or volunteering, or learning a new skill can all help prevent cognitive decline. Being proactive about doing these activities with others can help keep you crucially connected to others—another protective measure for your mind.