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It isn’t inevitable that our minds will slow down as we age. However, we need to make an effort to stay as sharp as we were when we were younger.
Let’s start with the encouraging news that the brain can grow new cells and form new neural connections at any age. We can protect brain function over time by focusing on mental, physical and social activities that promote healthy brain development. While we can’t completely eliminate the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common dementia, or other types of dementia, we can take proactive steps that will reduce that risk by up to 40 percent, according to the Lancet Commission’s report on dementia prevention.
Feed your brain. Eat blueberries and other fruits and vegetables, plus seafood. For older people, a Mediterranean diet – plant-centric, with little to no red meat or processed food – has been shown to improve overall health and lower the risk of scoring poorly on cognitive tests by 35 percent. In addition, this type of diet can help you prevent obesity, another risk factor for dementia. Our area’s bountiful berries, apples, veggies and fish mean that we can enjoy feeding our brains without much effort.
Exercise regularly. I recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day because the increased blood flow to the brain will prevent or postpone your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Sadly, the less active you are, the more you will have higher levels of stress and poorer quality of sleep, both of which may contribute to inflammatory effects in the brain. Moderate exercise includes hiking, dancing, swimming, walking or resistance training with light weights; you could also start doing yoga, sit-ups, squats or planks. Try walking around the house daily – and commit to doing it for longer periods of time every week. Helpful hint: You can do three 10-minute stints of exercise during the day and gain the same benefit as a 30-minute block.
Stop smoking. We know about the potential damage to our lungs when we smoke, but smoking also affects the brain negatively. Any type of smoking is harmful. Even if you’ve smoked for years, quitting now will help your future brain function.
Have a heart. If your cardiovascular system is healthy, it will help your brain health. Follow your physician’s advice if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or atrial fibrillation. These are distinct risk factors that you can modify. If you don’t know whether or not you have diabetes or high blood pressure, get screened now.
Stimulate your mind. Work your brain just as you work your body. You may have heard that you should do crossword puzzles or brain teasers or play strategy games; you can also try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand or learning a new language. A Kaiser Permanente study found that after cataract surgery, the risk of dementia drops by 30 percent and the benefit continues for at least 10 years after the surgery. The exact connection is not proven, but experts suggest that the brain receives more sensory input because vision has improved.
Be social. People with improved vision or those wearing hearing aids are more likely to be active and social, and studies show that we all benefit by reducing the inflammatory effects of social isolation and loneliness because they could eventually add to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Spend time with friends and family. Volunteer. Get involved in your local senior center. Take a class. You get bonus points if you combine socializing with a walk.
Minimize alcohol consumption. As we age, alcohol has a bigger impact on our bodies. If you drink, limit yourself to one drink daily if you’re female and a maximum of two drinks daily if you’re male.
Sleep well. A good night of sleep will mean fewer issues with memory and cognition. Focus on your sleep hygiene, which includes the habits and routines that help you settle down before bedtime. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, get tested and treated.
Prevent falls. Because falls can cause traumatic brain injuries, practice exercises to improve or maintain your strength and balance. Wear shoes and slippers with good soles. Install grab bars in the shower and stabilize area rugs or remove them. Watch out for uneven surfaces and cords that can trip you. On dog walks, avoid getting the leash wrapped around your legs or getting pulled off your feet. If you bike or ski, wear a helmet.
Take care of your mental health. Depression may become an issue, but medication and counseling are available and can help. Protect or improve your emotional health. Many of the suggestions in this article will help you lower your stress level, which can improve your mental health, too.
Check your meds. Some medications can mess with your memory. Ask your healthcare provider if any of the medications you take could cause or worsen memory issues.
Your body and brain are designed to stay active throughout life. While genetics have an impact on your cognitive health as you age, a healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward keeping your brain functioning well.
Preston Peterson, MD, MBA, FACP, is the regional chief of geriatrics for Kaiser Permanente Northwest. For more ideas on maintaining brain health, visit kp.org. For information on Kaiser Permanente in Lane County, visit kp.org/lane.
This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Everyday ways to keep your aging brain healthy and growing