Empower Your Mind With These 10 Essential Tips to Improve Mild Cognitive Impairment

Each of the 10 tips below are backed by recent studies - you'll find links to studies to support each suggestion.

"The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today." – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Doubt can often be our greatest barrier, try to approach the suggestions here with an open mind. Using the tips and information you find here, you will gain valuable insights to help you maintain and improve your cognitive health. Anyone can embrace these guidelines and take a step towards a sharper, more vibrant mind.

Tip 1: Structured Cognitive Training

What Is Structured Cognitive Training:
Structured Cognitive Training is done by puzzles or activities that challenge your brain. To give you a simple example, imagine looking at a list of 10 words, then taking a short break (5-10 minutes), and trying to recall the 10 words. This in particular would stimulate attention and memory. Other exercises may involve problem-solving and/or speed of thinking/processing. Training involves repetitive tasks that challenge your brain, which in turn helps to strengthen neural pathways and boost mental agility. You can think of a neural pathway as a road inside your brain that is 'traversed' when you think, built from connections between your brain cells. The connections enable different parts of the brain to communicate, allowing us to think, remember, and act. Each time you engage in these activities, you're essentially 'paving' these neural pathways, making them more efficient and effective. Just like a well-maintained road enables smoother travel, a well-trained neural pathway facilitates better cognitive function.

Supporting Research on Structured Cognitive Training:

  1. Computerized Structured Cognitive Training in Patients Affected by Early-Stage Alzheimer's Disease is Feasible and Effective: A Randomized Controlled Study
  2. Effects of cognitive training in Parkinson's disease: a randomized controlled trial
  3. Does Cognitive Training Prevent Cognitive Decline?: A Systematic Review

How To Use Structured Cognitive Training:

Memory Enhancement - Card Matching Games: If you have a standard card deck at home, you can take the cards (or a subset of them) and lay them face down on a table. Try to find pairs by flipping two cards at a time, for example two of the same numbers. You can make this easier by trying to locate matching suits (hearts, clubs, etc) or otherwise increase the difficulty by matching e.g. matching red and black as well as the number. Remembering the positions and identities of the cards exercises the hippocampus, the area of your brain involved in memory formation and spatial navigation. As you get better, increase the number of cards or incorporate multiple decks.

Attention Boost - The ‘Five Things’ Technique: Make a list of categories (for example: sports, songs, jobs, animals, fruits) and try to quickly name 5 (or however many) items as possible in that category. You can also use an online random category picker if you find it helpful or if you're playing alone. Do this for several rounds, trying to speed up the process each time. This exercise improves attention skills by forcing you to focus quickly and efficiently, filtering out distractions and honing your ability to concentrate under pressure.

Language Skills - Story Building: Start by picking a random image from a magazine or a book and creating a story around it. Start with a simple sentence about the image, then expand it into a paragraph, and finally turn it into a full story. This exercise will improve language and creativity as well as more complex functions like planning and sequential processing. It’s a fun and imaginative way to sharpen both spoken and written language skills.

Origami: Did you know that a study by the University of Kentucky indicated that origami increased "attention and long term memory performance mediated by alpha waves in the right visual cortex in older adults". While it may not be suitable for everyone, if you think this could be of interest to you - consider taking up origami. All you need is a piece of paper. I've linked a free resource for origami in the section below. All you'll need is a piece of paper!

Online Resources for Cognitive Training: There's also quite a few websites to help you run cognitive training exercises (for free). Also note that the first study we linked specifically proved computerized training as effective.:

An origami flower, creative way to improve cognitive health

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

Tip 2: Adequate Sleep

What Is Adequate Sleep:
This answer isn't as straightforward as you might expect. Getting enough sleep means you should be getting both the right quality and the right quantity of sleep. While the ideal amount varies by age and individual health, most adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule-going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends—can greatly improve sleep quality. For some of us this means reducing excessive sleep on weekends can help regularize your body's clock and this helps you feel better rested overall. In terms of quality, you should think about managing light exposure, creating a restful bedtime routine (no tech right before bed), and optimizing your sleep environment (temperature, comfort of bed, noises, etc.).

Supporting Research on Adequate Sleep:

  1. Sleep and Cognitive Decline: A Strong Bidirectional Relationship. It Is Time for Specific Recommendations on Routine Assessment and the Management of Sleep Disorders in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Dementia.
  2. Sleep Disturbance, Cognitive Decline, and Dementia: A Review
  3. Association Between Sleep Duration and Cognitive Decline

How To Use Adequate Sleep:

Create a Sleep-Inducing Environment: Ensuring your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool. Consider using blackout curtains. You can also consider an eye-mask, but it may take some getting used to if you've never tried these before. The ideal temperature for sleep is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius). Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows to support a good night's sleep.

Establish a Pre-Sleep Routine: Consistency is key to reinforcing your body's sleep-wake cycle. Develop a pre-sleep ritual that you can perform each night before bed to help wind down. This might include reading a book (not an e-book on a device), taking a warm bath, light stretching or meditation, and avoiding large meals, caffeine, and electronics at least an hour before bedtime (personally, I try to avoid caffeine entirely after 2PM). The goal is to make these activities a signal to your body that it's time to wind down.

Regulate Light Exposure: Light plays a crucial role in regulating sleep patterns. Exposure to natural light during the day helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle. As evening approaches, minimize exposure to blue light emitted by screens, as it can disrupt your ability to fall asleep. Both android and iphone devices have settings built-in that reduce blue light (see: How to Turn On and Off Blue Light On iPhone and Android).

Mindful Consumption: What you eat and drink can significantly affect how well you sleep. Avoid consuming large meals, caffeine, or alcohol before bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep. Instead, opt for a light snack that includes an amino acid called tryptophan (found in turkey, bananas, and dairy) which can help to promote sleep. Drinking a warm glass of milk or herbal tea like chamomile can also be soothing and may help you to fall asleep.

An origami flower, creative way to improve cognitive health

Photo by Dana Tentis

Tip 3: Mediterranean Diet

What Is The Mediterranean Diet:
As the name implies it's a diet based on foods from the Mediterranean region of Greece, Southern Italy, and Spain. The dishes in the diet are built around olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. You'll also find fish and poultry, and reduced consumption of red meats and sweets are part of this diet. The idea of the diet is promoting a lifelong healthy eating habit that includes more plant-based foods and healthy fats. You may also consider a traditional asian diet if that is more your preference; the core idea however is the same. You can of course even mix the two! For the sake of the conversation and to expand on the idea of eating more fruit and veg, let's focus on the research and examples of the Mediterranean diet in this case. But know that I am not pushing this as the single/only diet you should focus on.

Supporting Research on Mediterranean Diet:

Key Research:

"Closer adherence to the traditional MD is highly likely to protect against cognitive decline in this elderly Mediterranean population. Higher vegetable consumption appears to play a key role, possibly in synergy with additional components of the diet."

  1. Mediterranean diet and cognitive decline over time in an elderly Mediterranean population
  2. Adherence to a Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Decline, and Risk of Dementia
  3. Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia - A Systematic Review

How To Use The Mediterranean Diet:
Starting out is simple; use more fruits and vegetables into every meal. If you're out shopping, pick up fruits instead of any less-healthy snacks. A good rule of thumb to aim for come dinner time: at least half your plate should be plant-based. Try swapping out butter and refined oils for healthier fats like olive oil. Choose whole grains by picking whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole grain pasta. Try to reduce red meat to specific days of the month and include a variety of proteins from plant sources and seafood. Legumes, tofu and peas are good examples of protein-rich vegetables. Below is a good example to get started with.

Breakfast Lunch Dinner
Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts Lentil soup with a slice of whole-grain bread Grilled salmon with a side of quinoa and steamed broccoli
A piece of fruit (e.g., an apple or a banana) A fresh salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, feta cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil Roasted chicken with a mixed vegetable medley (carrots, zucchini, bell peppers)
Whole-grain toast with avocado A small portion of pasta with pesto sauce A small glass of red wine (optional). Also consider: Grape or pomegranate juice.
Optional Snack: A handful of almonds Optional Snack: Hummus with sliced carrots and celery Optional Snack: A small piece of dark chocolate

Tip 4: Physical Exercise

What Is Physical Exercise:
I get that this one is sort of obvious, but I'm trying to follow a structure here on the tips! All activities that increase the heart rate, such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, dancing, and various sports are what we mean here in the context of physical exercise and MCI improvement. Even if it may seem counterintuitive at first, physical exercise offers significant benefits for brain health, including improved blood flow to the brain and increased growth of neural connections (we covered what these are in the first tip). Engaging in regular physical activity can help improve memory, cognitive function, and help mitigate the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment. Let's back this up with some research and see some good examples to look at specifically in the context of someone focussing on making improvements to cognitive health.

Supporting Research on Physical Exercise:

Key Research:

"Out of the 15 selected studies, 11 reported improvement in flexibility, balancing, lower limb muscle strength, or depressive symptoms by low-intensity exercises."

  1. Effect of Low-intensity Exercise on Physical and Cognitive Health in Older Adults: a Systematic Review
  2. Exercise is brain food: The effects of physical activity on cognitive function
  3. Reviewing on physical exercise and the cognitive function

How To Use Physical Exercise:
Let's take a few simple/easy exercises that can help improve cognitive function in individuals with mild cognitive impairment:

A simple yet powerful exercise, walking does not require special equipment and can be done anywhere. Regular walking, especially at a brisk pace, enhances cardiovascular health, which in turn improves blood flow to the brain and supports neural health. Aim for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.

Water Aerobics:
If you're looking for a low-impact exercise, water aerobics is an excellent choice. Floating/being in water reduces stress on joints while also providing resistance, which helps maintain muscle strength. This type of exercise also improves endurance and flexibility, and the resistance of the water helps stimulate brain function.

Tai Chi:
This gentle form of martial arts focuses on slow, controlled movements and deep breathing. Tai Chi is particularly beneficial for the elderly as it improves balance, flexibility, and muscle strength, and its meditative movements are known to reduce stress and anxiety, which can help prevent cognitive decline.

Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to enhance overall health. It supports mental health by reducing stress, improving respiratory functions, and increasing bodily awareness. Yoga's focus on mindfulness and breathing can also increase mental clarity and assist in maintaining a healthier brain.

As a more recreational activity, gardening is perfect for those who prefer a less structured approach to exercise. It involves various physical movements such as digging, planting, weeding, and trimming, which help keep the body active. The peaceful nature of gardening also reduces stress and promotes a sense of well-being. All of this helps with your cognitive health.

Two elderly men socially engaged

Photo by Tiago Tins

Tip 5: Social Engagement

What Is Social Engagement:
Being involved in any social interaction, preferably in meaningful ways and building/maintaining relationships is important for anyone looking to maintain or improve cognitive health. Humans are simple creatures and need social interaction. Imagine a monkey alone in isolation for a prolonged period of time: the monkey inevitably becomes sad in isolation. When social interaction (peers) are introduced, this sadness goes away. Humans are no different here. But beyond making us happier, social interaction keeps our brains healthy. For individuals with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), social engagement is particularly vital as it not only combats loneliness and depression but also stimulates mental processes. Engaging regularly with others helps to maintain brain function, improve mood, and slow the progression of cognitive decline. Research fully supports this.

Supporting Research on Social Engagement:

  1. Which type of social activities may reduce cognitive decline in the elderly?: a longitudinal population-based study
  2. Social interaction and cognitive decline: Results of a 7-year community intervention
  3. Social relationships and cognitive decline: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies

How To Use Social Engagement:
Having or maintaining your connections can be both a joy and a cognitive aid for anyone with MCI. Here are several ways to encourage and sustain social interactions:

A man meditating, sitting in a tree, staring at a morning sunlit landscape

Photo by TMS Sam

Tip 6: Mindfulness and Meditation

What Is Mindfulness and Meditation:
Mindfulness and meditation have some overlaps and differences, but I've chucked them into the same tip. You can choose one, or both. In a way, both are a way to focus on bringing your attention to the present moment. So, this is going to help us with the attention part of cognitive health in particular. Mindfulness involves maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Meditation often involves this type of awareness but can also include techniques designed to promote relaxation, build internal energy, or develop compassion, love, patience, generosity, and forgiveness. For those with MCI, mindfulness and meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve attention and concentration, and promote a general sense of well-being. These practices have also been proven to contribute to changes in the brain that support memory and executive functions.

Supporting Research on Mindfulness and Meditation:

  1. Why could meditation practice help promote mental health and well-being in aging?
  2. Mindfulness Training for Emotional and Cognitive Health in Late Life
  3. How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies
  4. The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review

How To Use Mindfulness and Meditation:

Type of Exercise Duration How to Do It Benefits Focus Areas for MCI
Mindful Breathing 5-10 minutes Sit or lie comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on your natural breathing pattern. Feel the breath as it enters and exits your nostrils. Reduces stress, enhances concentration Attention, Stress Reduction
Body Scan Meditation 10-15 minutes Lie on your back, relax, and mentally scan your body from head to toe, observing any discomfort or tension. Improves body awareness, reduces tension Anxiety, Relaxation
Mindful Walking 10-20 minutes Walk slowly and deliberately, noticing the sensation of each step and the sounds around you. Focus on the movement of your body. Boosts mood, improves spatial memory Spatial Navigation, Mood Enhancement
Guided Visualization 10-20 minutes Find a quiet place, close your eyes, and imagine a peaceful place or scenario, using all your senses to deepen the experience. Promotes relaxation, decreases stress Stress Reduction, Emotional Regulation
Loving-kindness Meditation 15-20 minutes Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and mentally send goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of phrases. Enhances positive emotions, reduces depressive symptoms Emotional Well-being, Depression Management
Zazen (Zen Meditation) 10-30 minutes Sit on a cushion, fold your legs lotus-style, and focus solely on your breathing, dismissing any intrusive thoughts gently. Improves mental clarity, increases focus Cognitive Clarity, Focus

A calm waterfall in a forest

Photo by Owen Casey

Tip 7: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that has been proven to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and severe mental illness. Let's pause there - if anxiety and depression are not specific focus areas of your journey right now - you can skip the rest of this tip as I have not found much research to support benefits for other areas specific to MCI. If you do want to focus on these-let's continue. In CBT, sessions are structured to ensure that the therapist and the client are focused on the specific problems and goals of the client. It involves the identification and challenging of negative thinking patterns and behaviors that contribute to the patient's issues, aiming to change those thoughts and behaviors to reduce symptoms and improve functionality. For individuals with mild cognitive impairment, CBT can help manage the emotional and psychological challenges that come with the diagnosis, such as depression or anxiety, and can offer strategies to improve aspects of cognitive impairment.

Supporting Research on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression in Older People: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of Randomized Controlled Trials
  2. A randomized trial of the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy and supportive counseling for anxiety symptoms in older adults.

How To Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
CBT primarily focuses on changing negative patterns of thinking and behavior that contribute to emotional distress. Individuals with MCI can apply basic CBT techniques at home to improve their mental state and cognitive health. Here are a few practical ways to try this:

These self-help CBT strategies can be effective in managing symptoms of MCI and improving quality of life. However, working with a qualified therapist is of course the right/best way to fully explore benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy.

A male ballet dancer, new skill learning for mild cognitive decline

Photo by Yogendra Singh

Tip 8: Learn A New Skill

What Is a New Skill:
I'm not suggesting ballet-dancing necessarily like the image above, but any new skill will do! It doesn't even have to be physical of course, learning a language for example is going to train the brain just fine as well. You could even try cooking new dishes. The key or goal for learning a new skill for those with MCI is to engage in activities that are both stimulating and enjoyable without being frustrating.

For individuals with mild cognitive impairment, engaging in new learning experiences can be particularly beneficial. Here’s why:

Supporting Research on Learning New Skills:

  1. Beyond “Use It or Lose It”: The Impact of Engagement on Cognitive Aging
  2. The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project.
  3. A Cognitive Training Program Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) Study

How To Use Learning A New Skill:

New Skill Benefits/Cognitive Area Improved
Learning a new language Improves memory, cognitive flexibility, and attention
Consider the duolingo app on your phone for a fun and easy/free way to learn a new language
Playing a musical instrument Enhances auditory and memory skills, increases hand-eye coordination
Photography Boosts visual-spatial reasoning and creativity
Painting or drawing Improves creativity, motor skills, and emotional balance
Digital skills (e.g., using new software) Enhances problem-solving skills, memory, and can help with maintaining focus and attention
Gardening Aids in hand-eye coordination, physical health, and emotional well-being
Cooking new recipes Improves sensory skills and memory, offers therapeutic benefits
Practicing yoga or tai chi Enhances flexibility, mental clarity, and stress reduction
Writing (stories, journals, blogs) Supports language skills, memory, and provides emotional expression
Dancing Improves physical health, balance, memory, and spatial awareness

Tip 9: Tech-Assisted Reminders

What Are Tech-Assisted Reminders:
With this we mean tools and applications that use technology to help you manage daily tasks and responsibilities. It includes alarms on smartphones, using apps that send pop-up notifications for appointments or medication schedules, or leveraging smart home devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home to provide verbal reminders throughout the day. For individuals with mild cognitive impairment, these technologies can compensate for memory lapses, reduce stress about forgetting important tasks, and enhance overall independence and quality of life.

Supporting Research on Tech-Assisted Reminders:

  1. Smart Technology for Aging, Disability, and Independence: The State of the Science
  2. Effects of an electronic memory aid on the conversational content of persons with Alzheimer’s disease
  3. Novel Technological Solutions for Assessment, Treatment, and Assistance in Mild Cognitive Impairment

How To Use Tech-Assisted Reminders:

Technology Function Benefits
Smartphone Medication reminders Ensures timely medication intake
Smartphone Calendar alerts for appointments Helps keep track of doctor's visits and social engagements
Google Home / Echo Voice-activated alarms and reminders Allows hands-free operation, easy to use in daily routines
Smartphone Use of assistive apps Access to cognitive games, brain training apps, and social platforms (see our list of free brain training websites in tip #1)
Google Home / Echo Daily news and updates Keeps you informed and mentally engaged. E.G. can simply ask - "Hey, Google, play the news". You can set up routines easily on a schedule.
Smartphone Text-to-speech for reading text aloud Helps overcome challenges with reading small print
Google Home / Echo Interactive games and trivia Provides cognitive stimulation and can be used for entertainment ("Hey Google, ask me a trivia question")


Photo by Helena Lopes

Tip 10: Nature Therapy

What Is Nature Therapy:
For the final tip in this article, let's talk about the benefits of nature and what nature therapy is. As with all our other tips, science backs up the benefits and you will see the studies linked below. You may have also seen nature therapy described as ecotherapy or green therapy, and involves engaging with nature to promote mental and physical well-being. This therapeutic approach is based on the premise that people are deeply connected to and impacted by the natural world. Activities in nature therapy can range from guided walks in the forest, known as forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku, to gardening and wildlife watching (and hey! We've mentioned gardening in several tips already! See physical exercise as well as social engagement). These activities have been proven to reduce stress, enhance mood, and improve cognitive function through sensory stimulation and a calming environment. For individuals with mild cognitive impairment, nature therapy offers a gentle yet effective way to boost cognitive health and manage symptoms of cognitive decline.

"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees." – Henry David Thoreau

Supporting Research on Nature Therapy:

  1. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan
  2. The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes

How To Use Nature Therapy:

Activity Description Benefits
Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku) Taking leisurely walks in a forested area to absorb the natural ambiance. Reduces stress, enhances mood, improves focus and boosts immune system.
Gardening Cultivating plants, from flowers to vegetables, in a home garden. Improves dexterity and endurance, reduces stress, and promotes relaxation.
Wildlife Watching Observing animals in their natural habitat, which can be done even in urban parks. Enhances cognitive function and attention, provides sensory stimulation.
Nature Crafts Creating art from natural materials like leaves, twigs, flowers, and stones. Stimulates creativity, improves mood, and enhances cognitive flexibility.
Picnics Having a meal outdoors, preferably in a scenic landscape like a park or by a lake. Provides relaxation, improves dietary habits through planning, increases social interaction.