Train Your Brain

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Q+A: Dr. Nicole Anderson shares her insights into protecting and improving cognition.

Research indicates that, no matter your age, there are actions you can take to improve your brain health.

A new study out of Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences centre helps researchers better understand the aging brain. Titled “When I’m 64: Age-Related Variability in Over 40,000 Online Cognitive Test Takers,” and led by Dr. Annalise LaPlume, the study examined data from 40,000 people who completed an online brain health assessment created by Baycrest subsidiary Cogniciti.

Focusing on the brain health of older adults and people living with dementia, the Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment measures spatial working memory, processing speed, facilitation, associative recognition and set-shifting through a series of tasks. 

In analyzing assessment data, researchers found cognitive performance gradually declines over early and mid-adulthood, with faster and variable decline starting in the early 60s. Increasing differences in individual performance after 60 suggests causes besides age. With these results, researchers have identified risk factors and developed ways to protect and improve cognition. 

Dr. Nicole Anderson, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and co-author of the study, discusses these factors and offers tips on boosting brain health.

Q: What makes us more likely to have cognitive decline?

A: Risk factors include age, genetic makeup and how we live our life. It’s about how cognitively engaged we are, what our exercise and eating habits are like, how socially connected we are and whether we address our sensory deficits such as hearing and vision loss.

Baycrest scientist, Dr. Nicole Anderson.

For example, bilingual people develop mild cognitive impairment and dementia about four years later than monolingual people do, and people with higher levels of education are less likely to develop dementia and do so later.

Q: How can we keep our brain healthy? 

A: We should:

  • Exercise with moderate to vigorous intensity for two and a half hours a week, or 24 minutes a day. 
  • Eat a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean-style diet, where proteins come from fish and lean white meats.
  • Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Stay cognitively active.
  • Stay socially connected.
  • Use a hearing aid, if needed.
  • Avoid head injuries.

"Try to stay physically active, try to eat well, try to stay calm and cognitively and socially engaged. That is going to help slow down cognitive decline."

– Dr. Nicole Anderson

Q: How can people living with cognitive decline improve their brain health?

A: The most effective thing is a lifetime of living healthy, but it's never too late. Even older adults who start learning a new language have increases in cognitive functioning.

Again, try to stay physically active, try to eat well, try to stay calm and cognitively and socially engaged. That is going to help slow down cognitive decline.

Q: Why is it important to address diagnosed cognitive changes early? 

A: Addressing all these risk factors, such as cognitive engagement, social connectedness and sensory deficits helps build cognitive reserve so that you have better brain health to live longer, even if you're having Alzheimer's pathology building up in your brain. If we can raise levels of cognitive functioning earlier, you’ll enjoy more years in cognitive health. 

Q: What cognitive improvement tools does Baycrest offer?

A: Take the free, 20-minute Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment online. It will tell you whether you should go see your doctor. I encourage using Cogniciti even just to see where you’re at.

There’s the Cogniciti Smart Tracker, which looks at risk factors, eating habits, physical activity, mental health and things like that. And it gives advice about how to address those factors. 

Baycrest also has a food guide, a very active memory clinic and top-notch neurologists and psychiatrists working at the Koschitzky Centre for caregivers.


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