People are living longer today than ever before. Rapid improvements in healthcare technology have given many the opportunity to live well beyond a century while maintaining the ability to do things they never thought possible with their aging bodies.
As exciting as this may sound, living a longer life comes with new challenges, including the threat of cognitive decline. For some, just saying the words “cognitive decline” is enough to create anxiety. No one wants to grow older with the constant fear that they are going to lose their mind. Some experts believe that contrary to popular thinking, however, a decline in brain health is not inevitable. Bur first, let’s dissect the brain’s function and define brain health.
The brain is considered the most important and complex organ in the human body. It is responsible for all things that make us human, including coordinating actions and reactions, providing for thoughts and feelings, enabling us to have memories, vision, breathing, motor control, temperature, hunger and thirst, and every regulating process.
According to the National Institute on Aging, good brain health has several components. These include:
- Cognitive health: how well we think, learn, and remember
- Motor function: how well we make and control movement, including balance
- Emotional function: how well we interpret and respond to emotions, positive and negative
- Tactile function: how well we feel and respond to sensations of touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature
While brain health can be affected by age-related changes, other elements such as stroke or traumatic brain injury, mood disorders including depression, substance abuse, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s may also serve to alter the state of the brain. Though some things cannot be avoided, experts say one’s lifestyle is extremely important and can make the difference between experiencing the effects of aging and maintaining a healthy, optimally functioning brain at any age. If bad habits have crept in, it’s usually not too late to adopt the following practices that should come from a healthy lifestyle.
Take a look at these five important factors that can help maintain and even boost brain health:
How many times have you heard someone say they’re going for a walk to clear their head? A brisk walk, jog, hike, bike ride, a swim in the pool—any and all of these contribute to mood elevation and a stronger body. In short there’s never enough to be said about the merits of exercise, including for the brain. Mood (including depression), weight, diabetes, strength, heart disease, balance, and so much more are all influenced by the amount and level of exercise we get—or don’t get. Federal guidelines recommend all adults get at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of exercise each week, including aerobic and strength training when possible.
Poor diet is considered the gateway to chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, osteoporosis, etc. A steady intake of processed, fatty, salty, sugary, and fast food also affects brain health, as the brain relies on adequate fuel—or a ready supply of glucose ideally provided by healthy foods—to run. Fresh fruits, vegetables, protein sources including fish, lean meats, and poultry, low-fat or nonfat dairy, and lots of water are the right fuel for healthy bodies and brains, increasingly so as we age.
Though evidence varies, some studies suggest that the key to a mildly aging brain vs. one challenged by aging is connected to consistently venturing outside one’s so-called comfort zone. In other words, frequently learning a new hobby, activity, skill, or craft, a new language, taking or teaching classes (in person, online, etc.) outside the realm of what one typically does—and sustaining it. Participation in community organizations including as a volunteer can also provide a strong, consistent cognitive challenge. If you love to read—also considered mind building—try reading books and periodicals outside the realm of your usual subject matter, and even volunteer as a reading tutor to children or adults with English as a second language.
If you’re a retired businessperson, involvement in organizations such as SCORE: Service Core of Retired Executives, where mentors help people start, grow, or transition their business is an ongoing challenge many seniors welcome, and can keep the brain sharp.
Research shows that good friends and strong family relationships boost morale and give seniors a real sense of purpose. If these connections do not currently exist in your life, it’s never too late to cultivate them. To paraphrase a popular saying, if you want to have a friend, be a friend. Getting together for lunch, coffee, holidays, walks, babysitting grandchildren or the neighborhood kids, etc. can keep life stimulating with a positive effect on the brain.
Short-term stress is said to give us a jolt that we sometimes need for focus and motivation. It may even cause a landslide of creative thinking and problem solving—something that stimulates the brain. But chronic stress can impact memory and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It can change the brain, causing sustained chemical imbalance resulting in unfavorable neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune, and metabolic responses. In short, while we are all subject to stress, learning to manage it is the key to ongoing good brain health. Exercise, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, tai chi, yoga, journaling, and breathing exercises can be instrumental in lowering blood pressure, lessening muscle tension, and in an overall sense allowing the brain to function normally.
While aging is inevitable, resigning oneself to a future of declining brain health is not. Taking steps to help ensure a great quality of life can start today.
“Tips for Maintaining Senior Brain Health and Boosting Mental Wellness,” written by Beth Herman, Amada blog contributor.