by Max Gottlieb
We’re well aware that when people stop exercising, especially as they get older, their risk goes up for partially preventable conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. What many people fail to consider, however, is that brain health also plays a major role in overall health. Beyond dementia or Alzheimer’s, depression is a major cause for concern within the elderly population and depression is exacerbated by mental inertness. People assume that as we get older the brain loses the plasticity it once had, but there is growing evidence supporting the idea that the brain never fully stops adapting or changing. Obviously, learning a new language is much easier as a child than as an adult, but no one is asking for that—just a little bit of effort spent keeping your brain healthy goes a long way.
Strengthen your Memory:
To strengthen your memory, it is necessary to make some small lifestyle changes since diet and sleep play an integral role in overall memory. Without the necessary sleep, your brain will be foggy during the day and won’t have time to consolidate memory at night. In terms of foods, try to boost your intake of: omega 3 fatty acids (salmon); berries and cherries, which contain anthocyanin; walnuts; cruciferous vegetables; and eggs for the nutrient choline. Beyond changing your lifestyle, try to do activities that boost memory as well. Instead of driving a familiar route or using a maps app, try a new route with no maps as this improves spatial awareness. Do math in your head the next time you have to leave a tip at a restaurant or the next time you’re doing the monthly bills. Also, if you don’t already keep a journal, this is another great way to improve memory since you will be reconstructing the day’s events as you write them down.
Keep an Active Mind:
Hand in hand with strengthening your memory is keeping an active mind. This can be done many different ways. The easiest way to keep you or your loved one’s mind active and charged is to change up the routine every now and again. Changing a routine may not sound like much, but it changes the way the brain communicates with itself. It could be as simple as reading a book instead of watching TV or going for a walk in a new part of town. Another great way to keep an active mind is through frequent social interaction. This can be done through phone calls, face-to-face communication, and even group activity. Of course there are also brain games to play like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, trivia, arts and crafts, or traditional puzzles.
Chronic stress has been shown to have a negative impact on overall cognitive health. While managing and reducing stress is important at any stage of life, reducing stress as a senior is doubly important because of the hormone cortisol. Stress increases cortisol levels in the body. Seniors already have increased cortisol due to age and too much of this hormone can exacerbate bodily ailments and also reduce quality of sleep. Lack of sleep has played a major role as a risk factor in many recent Alzheimer’s and dementia studies. Exercise, meditation, talk-therapy, and even volunteering have all been shown as effective ways to cope with and reduce stress.
Stay Physically Active:
If you are a social person, try doing activities with friends. When participating in a group setting, many people hardly notice they are completing the recommended amount of daily exercise. It makes things less tedious and obligatory. If you’re not enjoying yourself while working out then it becomes extremely easy to quit. Rather than quitting, however, try to change up your activities and find ones you do enjoy. Whether it is walking up and down the stairs, parking further away than usual or even light sports like swimming, anything helps. Regular exercise improves memory and overall brain health and is essential to overall healthiness.
Just like physical health, mental health requires daily upkeep. Of course, what works for one person may not work for another, but any effort spent towards improving brain health is a worthwhile endeavor. Tailor new routines to you or your loved one’s personality and if you’ve ever put off something you’d like to learn or do, retirement is the perfect time to try new things.
Max Gottlieb is the content manager of Senior Planning in Phoenix, Arizona. Senior Planning gives free assistance to seniors and their families—mainly helping them access benefits and decide which type of senior care is best for their situation.