A Brain-Healthy Lifestyle at Any Age
In September 2020, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society once again confirmed that certain lifestyle choices are beneficial to the brain, and might not only slow but even somewhat reverse the memory changes of aging.
Noted the study authors from the Australian National University, “We’ve known for some time that lifestyle changes such as these can reduce dementia risk in the general population. What this study adds is that with the right intervention, people experiencing cognitive decline may retain sufficient neuroplasticity for their brain to ‘bounce back’ from decline.”
What are the beneficial choices we can make? Here are factors the Australian researchers focused on, and a few more for good measure:
Eat well. The people in the Australian study were assisted in following the well-known Mediterranean diet. A number of other nutritionist-developed diets are also brain healthy, and they all feature plenty of veggies, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, with alcohol only in moderation, and limited refined carbohydrates and processed foods. A nutritionist or your doctor can prescribe a diet that’s right for you.
Get plenty of exercise. The Australian researchers described the positive effects of exercise training and encouragement. The value of physical activity is confirmed by recent research from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. “The results of our study indicate that all physical activities, including exercise as well as other activities such as cooking, washing the dishes, and cleaning, are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” said study author Dr. Aron S. Buchman. “These results provide support for efforts to encourage all types of physical activity even in very old adults who might not be able to participate in formal exercise, but can still benefit from a more active lifestyle.”
Give your brain a workout, too. The people in the Australian study took part in special brain training exercises. These can provide good mental stimulation. But that’s just the beginning! Anything that makes us think and challenges our brains is beneficial—especially when we focus on something new. Picking up a new skill, taking a class, working puzzles, using social media, playing an instrument or learning a language all provide beneficial mental stimulation that builds connections in the brain.
Avoid falls. Falls can cause brain damage, and other injuries that lead to inactivity and decline. Remove clutter in your living environment that could trip you up. If you use a cane, walker or other assistive device, be sure it’s fitted properly. Have your medications reviewed—some can raise the risk of falls. Ask your doctor about a fall prevention program that can help you improve your balance.
Quit smoking. More and more studies show that smoking is very bad for the brain. One study showed that heavy smoking in midlife raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 157% and vascular dementia by 172%. Fortunately, even a lifelong smoker can benefit by giving up the habit. If you don’t succeed the first time, try again. Ask your doctor about a quit smoking program.
Control your stress. Experts tell us that a little bit of stress is harmless, and can even be good for us. But prolonged stress releases an excess of the hormone cortisol into our bodies, and that is bad for our brains. If you feel that your stress is out of control, talk to your health care provider. Stress management techniques and counseling can help.
The challenges of today
These days it can be harder to stay active, get enough good food, and find things to occupy our minds. And it’s certainly a stressful time for many of us! But it’s worth the effort to pay attention to brain health at this time. Seniors who live alone can check out resources through their local senior service agencies. Those who live in a senior living community should take advantage of programs their community has put into place right now to protect residents’ health and wellbeing until the pandemic is over and we can return to our more familiar way of life.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Discuss memory concerns with your doctor, and ask about a personalized brain health regimen, which might include nutrition counseling, a prescription for exercise, quit-smoking resources, stress management and more.