As we age, mental function changes along with us. Mental decline is common, however there are things we can do to keep our brains active and alert. Cognitive impairment is not inevitable. Here are 12 suggestions for enhancing andmaintaining brain function as we age.
Focus on hobbies of enjoyment
Brainy activities have been found to stimulate new connections and between nerve cells and new cells, helping to develop neuroplasticity and building up a functional reserve, or extra padding against future cell loss. Reading, taking courses, learning languages-even a few phrases, word puzzles or math problems like Sudoku all assist in this. Doing the things one enjoys, and finding new hobbies also helps to expand the neuro network. Things such as drawing, painting, pottery, scrap booking and knitting/sewing are some examples of activities that keep the brain sharp. Swimming, pickle ball or squash and even board games like Scrabble can help!
An increasing body of research is showing that the more we move our muscles, the more our mind moves as well. Even animals who exercise on a regular basis have an increase in the number of tiny blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Maintaining physical activity also kickstarts the development of nerve cells and increases connectivity in the brain. With an increase in oxygen and connectivity, we also have an increase in performance, cognition and creativity. Getting exercise also has the added benefit of lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, aids in maintaining blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress. A total win-win.
Focus on a plate full of colour
Eating foods rich in unsaturated oils, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and plant proteins such as tofu or quinoa are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia. By incorporating superfoods such as blueberries, sweet potatoes and kale we help to increase brain activity by offering nutritionally dense substance to the human biome.
Decrease blood pressure
With increases in stress and responsibilities sometimes also comes an increase in blood pressure. High blood pressure as we age may increase the risk of cognitive decline as it puts more stress on our cardiovascular system-including how blood is pumped to our most vital organ-the brain. Usually simple lifestyle modifications such as walking or running daily, avoiding sitting for long periods of time and improving stress management techniques help to regulate blood pressure at a more reasonable rate. Limiting alcohol and fatty foods also helps to decrease blood pressure. If you are concerned about your blood pressure, please check with your physician for assistance in managing it to a more sustainable level.
How “sweet” you are, indeed.
As we age, we may become more susceptible to heightened blood sugar, or Type 2 Diabetes. It is a very important risk factor for dementia. As more studies are showing to link diabetes to dementia it is important to be mindful of our sugar and refined food intake. Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes consists of eating well, cutting out fatty and processed foods, exercising regularly and staying lean. If your blood sugar is on the rise or hard to manage, please be sure to consult a physician who can help guide you to better management.
Learning the difference between good and bad cholesterol
What is too much of a good thing? When we consume too much LDL or “bad” cholesterol in foods like fatty cuts of meat, full fat dairy, processed and fried foods. These are all associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. Exercise, weight control, avoiding tobacco products and alcohol as well as choosing leaner foods are straightforward ways to improve cholesterol levels. “Good” cholesterol may be found in foods such as beans, grains, fruit and fish. As always, consider consulting a physician for assistance in maintaining healthy cholesterol.
Baby Aspirin, not just for babies
Some medical studies suggest taking one low dose (81mg) baby Aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia (the kind associated with decreased blood flow to the brain. Consult your doctor if this is something you’d like to consider.
Avoid tobacco in all its forms. Many studies indicate this is the single most preventable cause of disease there is. Smoking cessation programs are available. Consult your physician for more information.
Don’t overindulge in happy hour
Although we may enjoy the occasional glass of wine or cocktail hour, it is best to keep this to a minimum, or abstain all together. Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia and can lead to many other issues as well. If you’d like a to partake in a splash of spirits, do try to limit intake to one drink a day.
Calming the emotional storm
Anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation and exhaustion may lead to poorer cognitive function tests-which may in turn cause more anxiety! Grief, PTSD and trauma also add to the pile of “intriguing” life experiences that create a rich emotional tapestry. Positive mental health is not an easy task for anyone living today, so it is helpful to put emphasis on the importance of learning better coping skills and stress management. Meditation, restorative yoga and breathing exercises, as well as cognitive behaviour therapy are all positive ways to restore, enhance and maintain general well being.
Where’s your head at?
Head injuries are no fun to anyone and moderate to severe head injuries-even in the absence of a diagnosed concussion increase the risk of cognitive impairment. Accidents happen, and when they do make sure to be checked over by a medical team and give your brain time to rest and recuperate.
Build a solid tribe
Finding those we have similarities with, people that share our values and morals, those who are strong enough to support us when we fall and are around in the good and the bad help us to retain a sense of community and belonging. Some studies show strong social ties may be associated with a lower risk of dementia and other cognitive decline, as well as a decrease in blood pressure and a longer life expectancy. Having a sense of belonging and being connected to positive, loving individuals also helps us to become more positive and loving in return, which helps keep the brain connected.
Kimberley Dickinson is a Nurse, Author of the bestselling novel The One Life Movement, Private Yoga Instructor, Life Coach, Grief, Loss and Mental Health supporter and End of Life Transition / Death Doula. For more information on her lifespan inclusive services and skills please connect with her on www.athomewellness.ca for in person, over the phone or online support and coaching sessions.
Grief and Loss workshops are scheduled throughout the year.
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