Top 10 Brain Health and Cognition Trends Learned in 2022
Today’s sophisticated imaging technologies and data analysis are helping scientists refine what we know about the human brain. Here are some studies from this year that are not only interesting, but also could motivate us to adopt a more brain-healthy lifestyle.
- Remembering is more complicated than we thought. Researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine used imaging to literally observe memories in the brain. They learned that while the basic recollection of an experience might be stored in one part of the brain, sensory portions of the same memory might be stored in a different area. “An unforgettable time at a restaurant is not just about the food,” the authors reported in July 2022. “The odors, the decor, the sound of the band playing, the conversations, and many other features may combine to form a distinctive memory of the night. Later, reviving any one of these impressions alone may be sufficient to bring back the entire experience.” This is scientifically backed proof that if you want to make something unforgettable, catering to all levels of a person’s senses will help make it memorable.
- Pandemic life has dulled our memories. Severe COVID-19 caused brain damage for many patients. But since 2020, many people who avoided contracting the coronavirus or recovered uneventfully also have experienced memory changes. In an April 2022 study, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University explained that the relative monotony of our lives provides fewer cues and anchors for retrieving memories than we had in normal times—causing us to perceive “memory fog.”
- Nerding out is good memory exercise. A July 2022 study from Baycrest Health Sciences Centre in Toronto found that birdwatchers are better able to remember things. According to Dr. Erik Wing, birders develop a “mental scaffolding” as they categorize all those different birds, and this provides all-around memory reinforcement. Not a bird fan? Dr. Wing’s team assures us that other obsessions also are of benefit. “While we can’t all be birdwatching experts, we are all experts in something—whether it’s sports, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy or our own family and social network,” they said. “In other words, we may all be able to benefit from the memory boost that expertise can provide, regardless of our age.” Want to exercise your brain as you age? Learn something new or start a new hobby!
- Yes, older adults do have more information in their brains. A lot of seniors make jokes along the lines of “I can’t remember—my brain’s hard drive is too full!” A February 2022 study published in Trends in Cognitive Science showed that analogies with a computer’s hard drive might not be off the mark. “When a person tries to access a memory, their brain quickly sifts through everything stored in it to find the relevant information,” reported the study authors. “But as we age, many of us have difficulty retrieving memories.” But there’s an upside: This “crowded memoryscape” also can enhance creativity and improve decision-making skills.
- Owning a pet offers brain health benefits. A February 2022 study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting shed light on the beneficial effects of owning an animal companion. Data showed that seniors who own a pet have slower cognitive decline. “As stress can negatively affect cognitive function, the potential stress-buffering effects of pet ownership could provide a plausible reason for our findings,” said study author Dr. Tiffany Braley. “A companion animal can also increase physical activity, which could benefit cognitive health.” If you are a family caregiver, is the benefit of owning a pet a good option for your loved one?
- Our brains have special cells that respond only to singing. Neurologists have known for some time that certain neurons respond to music and speech. But in February 2022, University of Rochester experts used highly pinpointed brain imaging to demonstrate that some brain cells react not to speech … not to instrumental music … but specifically to singing! We know that music is excellent brain exercise, so go ahead—sing a song, or listen to your favorite vocal artist and give those special neurons a workout.
- Getting a flu shot protects the brain. A June 2022 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center found that people who get a flu shot are 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. “The strength of this protective effect increased with the number of years that a person received an annual flu vaccine—in other words, the rate of developing Alzheimer’s was lowest among those who consistently received the flu vaccine every year,” reported Dr. Avram Bukhbinder. The team says this may be because the vaccine prevents certain changes in the immune system that are linked to dementia.
- Poor scores on a cognitive test could actually signal a vision problem. A May 2022 study from the University of South Australia revealed that 25% of older adults who perform poorly on tests of memory and thinking do so because they have trouble seeing the test. Older adults are advised to get an eye exam, and cognitive tests should be appropriate for visually impaired patients. “A mistaken score in cognitive tests could have devastating ramifications, leading to unnecessary changes to a person’s living, working, financial or social circumstances,” said study author Anne Macnamara. “For example, if a mistaken score contributed to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, it could trigger psychological problems including depression and anxiety.”
- The effects of loneliness are visible in the brain. June 2022 research from the universities of Cambridge and Warwick in the U.K. used neuroimaging (MRI) of 460,000 people to show that socially isolated people had a lower volume of the brain area involved in memory and learning. “In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, or the state of being cut off from social networks, has intensified,” said the study authors. “It’s more important than ever to identify people who are socially isolated and provide resources to help them make connections in their community.”
- Age may not be the top risk factor for dementia. A second July 2022 study from Baycrest found that the known lifestyle risk factors for memory and thinking problems could each reduce a person’s cognitive wellness by the equivalent of three years of aging. “Our results suggest lifestyle factors may be more important than age in determining someone’s level of cognitive functioning,” said study author Dr. Annalise LaPlume. “This is great news, since there’s a lot you can do to modify these factors, such as managing diabetes, addressing hearing loss, and getting the support you need to quit smoking.”
Right at Home offers a wide range of services including companion care, personal care and support for chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. If you are a family caregiver with concern for a loved one who has received a dementia diagnosis or who is experiencing cognitive decline, Right at Home offers a FREE Dementia and Cognitive Change Guide that offers techniques to help you find new ways to connect with your loved one and enhance their quality of life. Or, use our location finder to get in touch with the office nearest you to receive a FREE in-home consultation.