Elders and stress

Resilience and protection of our cognitive capacities

Science has shown that genes interact with one’s environment and lifestyle. This implies that even for older adults with genetic risks, maintaining a healthy lifestyle might be protective for memory performance, as well as mental and physical health. The earlier one starts adopting healthy habits, the better. And it’s never too late to start!

Based on recent research, here are a few strategies that help in protecting cognitive capacities.

Engaging in stimulating activities

Evidence shows that older adults who engage in mentally stimulating activities maintain better cognitive performance over longer periods of time. The most beneficial activities tend to be ones that challenge the mind and allow it to exert an effort, and engage in problems.

These may include a wide range of activities such as learning a new language or starting a new hobby, playing challenging board games, bridge, completing difficult puzzles, playing a musical instrument, learning new information, having group discussions, reading on stimulating topics and other intellectual activities. It is also important to choose activities that one enjoys and is likely to pursue on a regular basis.

Engaging in an active lifestyle

We now know that what is good for the heart, is also good for the brain. It has long been known that physical activity is important to prevent cardiovascular disease. However, recent studies show that regular exercise also protects cognitive capacities. Physical activities may include walking, hiking, cycling, dancing and aerobics classes, among many others. Even small lifestyle changes such as walking and climbing the stairs can add up and make a difference.

Maintaining good relationships and having social support

Whereas loneliness and isolation may increase the risk for cognitive impairment and dementia, evidence shows that strong social support networks are associated with optimal cognitive functioning. The number of individuals in one’s social network may not be as important as the quality of relationships, as the latter allows one to seek social support when needed.


Similar to exercise, healthy nutrition not only protects against cardiovascular disease, but also helps in maintaining good cognitive capacities. Better cognitive functioning is found among individuals who have diets rich in antioxidants (derived from fruits and vegetables), healthy fats (derived from fish –Omega-3-, lean meats, olive oil, and nuts) and whole grains.

Stress management

Chronic levels of elevated stress hormones are associated with memory impairments. Although there is no magic recipe to manage one’s stress levels, different individuals tend to find various strategies that work for them and succeed at decreasing their stress levels. It is therefore important for one to be aware of his/ her increased stress levels in order to address the source of stress if possible, and to engage in strategies that may decrease one’s stress hormone levels and protect memory functioning.


Sleep deprivation is associated with impaired memory performance and decreased concentration among older adults. It is sometimes necessary to manage other conditions that may contribute to disturbed sleep. These may include medication side effects, depression, pain, sleep apnea, as well as stress.