Longevity Articles

7 Ways to Support Cognition With Age

Cognitive decline is common but preventable with dietary and lifestyle measures

Updated on 4/3/23 by Cambria Glosz, MS, RD

Cognitive decline tops the list of health conditions that our society fears the most as we age, and for good reason: 1 in 3 seniors will die with a form of memory or cognitive loss. Conditions involving cognitive loss are often more feared than those affecting the rest of the body, as it means losing a part of who we are as a human—our personality, our memories, and our thoughts.

While it is true that some of us are genetically predisposed to cognitive loss, there are many things you can do to prevent it from happening. Keep reading for the top seven ways to keep your brain healthy as the years go by.

Don't disregard this article if you're young, as our brains start to deteriorate starting at age 30—and doing preventive work now can help support later years that are long, healthy, and mentally sharp.

1. Exercise

Is there anything exercise isn't good for? We all know that being physically active is a great way to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of age-related disorders, but did you know it can also strengthen your brain and prevent cognitive decline?

During periods of physical activity, blood flow to the brain increases, which then promotes neural activation and efficiency [1]. This also leads to increased brain plasticity (a plastic brain doesn't sound too good, but it is—it refers to the neuron's abilities to adapt to stressors and remain flexible) and a reduction in inflammatory markers [2].

These effects are consistent throughout the lifespan—one study found that poor physical fitness levels at age 18 were linked to a 7-fold increased risk of developing cognitive loss by age 45 [3].

So, what kind of exercise is best?

Aerobic exercise, which gets your heart pumping, has been shown to improve brain function and increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is essential for maintaining and growing new neurons [4].

In an almost 20-year-long study, those who maintained cardiorespiratory fitness throughout the study period had a reduced risk of having memory or cognitive loss [5].

Both aerobic exercise and resistance training can help with brain function

Resistance training has been shown to improve brain health by leading to an increase in grey matter thickness and reduced white matter atrophy, which is a common sign of cognitive loss [6]. Some research has found that resistance training three times per week had a better impact on cognition than twice-weekly training [7].

Exercise can also help to improve cognition once memory loss has begun, especially in the early stages [8]. In adults with impaired cognition, those who aerobically exercised three times per week had improved cognitive function over the six-month study [9].

We should also mention brain exercises or training, which usually involves puzzles, word games, or other brain activities. A randomized controlled trial of 50 people with early stages of cognitive loss found that those who trained for two hours per week with linguistic (word-based) exercises saw an increase in many cognitive abilities, including memory and word recall. Conversely, the control group saw a deterioration in these skills over the 15-week study [10].

Want to save yourself time and increase brain benefits? Studies have also shown that memory training while exercising on a stationary bike led to improved memory, attention, and reasoning abilities compared to cognitive training after exercising [11].

2. Mediterranean Diet

A Mediterranean diet, which includes heavy consumption of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, olive oil, fish, nuts, and beans, has been associated with cognitive support [12].

A Mediterranean diet can help prevent cognitive decline

Although it's harder to study entire dietary patterns compared to single nutrients, a few trials have done so. The PREDIMED clinical trial found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet, supplemented either with 1 liter of olive oil per week or 30 grams of nuts per day, had improvements in a variety of cognitive tests [13].

Another trial used the MIND diet, which was Mediterranean-style but focused on green leafy vegetables and berries as the main vegetable and fruit; those who followed the MIND diet had significantly lower rates of cognitive loss over the 4.7-year study [14].

Consumption of green leafy vegetables has been further researched, with one study finding that just 1.3 servings per day was linked to the study participants' brains seeming 11 years younger in age, in terms of cognition [15].

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats, which are found predominantly in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, have been studied for their beneficial effects on brain health [16]. The primary omega-3 fatty acids are DHA and EPA; DHA constitutes up to 40% of the long-chain fats in the brain's grey matter [17].

While epidemiological research has linked an increase in omega-3 fat consumption to better cognition, the results from randomized controlled trials are mixed [18]. One study did find a small increase in memory function in healthy older adults who supplemented with omega-3 fats [19].

Although supplements may or may not prevent cognitive loss, many studies have shown a benefit of eating the fish itself, rather than taking fish oil pills. One study found that consumption of fish four times per week, compared to once or less, was linked to a lower rate of memory loss [20].

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the form of fatty fish, can help improve brain health

4. Gingko Biloba Extract

Gingko biloba, sometimes known as the maidenhair tree, is native to China and its use dates back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to its high level of antioxidants, gingko biloba is widely studied for its effects on human health.

A meta-analysis of four trials found that gingko biloba extract supplementation for 22-24 weeks led to an improvement in the behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with cognitive loss [22]. While it can't be concluded that ginkgo biloba extract can prevent memory loss, there does appear to be some valid research for supporting aspects of cognitive function.

5. Coffee

If you're a fan of a daily cup of joe (or two), you're in luck. Reviews have found that moderate coffee consumption is linked to a reduction in some conditions related to neurodegeneration [23]. Researchers are still trying to tease out whether it's the caffeine, antioxidants, or another unknown compound in coffee that provides these benefits.

One study found that moderate coffee consumption was associated with an increase in the brain's white matter and cerebral blood flow in healthy older adults [24].

Similarly, a 21-year study found that people who had the lowest risk of developing cognitive loss were coffee drinkers at midlife, to the tune of 3-5 cups per day [25]. One caveat: adding scoops of sugar and cream into your coffee will likely negate the benefits!

6. Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a plant compound that behaves like an antioxidant and is primarily found in red wine and grape skins. Studies have shown that resveratrol can increase cerebral blood flow, which may be beneficial for maintaining brain health [26]. In a 2014 trial, healthy adults who took resveratrol supplements had an increase in word retention and functional connectivity of the hippocampus—the brain region most associated with memory and learning [27].

Another study found that neuroinflammation was reduced in people who supplemented with resveratrol, however, cognitive scores were not improved significantly [28]. One reason for conflicting results in studies may be that the form of resveratrol was not considered, as the most bioavailable form is trans-resveratrol.

7. Curcumin

Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in turmeric that gives it its characteristically bright yellow hue. Many cell-based studies have shown the potential mechanism for how curcumin could help support cognition, including that it promotes healthier inflammatory responses and provides antioxidant activity [29-30].

Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, may improve cognitive function in supplemental form

Similar to resveratrol, clinical human trials have varying results, with some showing no benefits of curcumin supplementation to cognitive function [31]. Nonetheless, one study did find that 90 mg of bioavailable curcumin twice daily led to significant improvements on memory and attention tests in healthy adults [32].

An important point about curcumin is that it has low bioavailability on its own; the compound piperine (found in black pepper) can increase curcumin absorption by up to 2,000%. If a curcumin supplement does not contain black pepper or piperine, there is a low likelihood it will help any condition therapeutically, although it will still taste good in your curry.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Although genetics do play a role in how well your brain works as you age, there is plenty you can do to support cognitive function. 
  • There is evidence that aerobic exercise, resistance training, and eating a Mediterranean-style diet with moderate coffee intake and plenty of fish rich in omega-3 fats can support cognition with age. 
  • Supplementing with gingko biloba, resveratrol, and curcumin may help to support cognitive function with age, although additional research is still warranted.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4587595/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866875/
  3. https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/137/5/1514/333397
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4587595/
  5. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S2468-2667%2819%2930183-5
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6617693/
  7. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40520-018-0998-6
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5302785/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5109938/
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079404/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5870016/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4352174/
  13. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2293082
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4581900/
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5772164/
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262608/
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4927899/
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4632767/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26890759-impact-of-omega-3-fatty-acid-supplementation-on-memory-functions-in-healthy-older-adults/
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928461/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5822177/
  22. Treatment effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 on the spectrum of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: meta-an
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5420628/
  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6212945/
  25. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19158424
  26. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20357044
  27. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6608268/?report=reader
  28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5234138/
  29. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22887802-multitargeting-by-turmeric-the-golden-spice-from-kitchen-to-clinic/
  30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6273006/
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580400/?report=reader
  32. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1064748117305110?via%3Dihub

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