This time of year, there’s plenty of spookiness to startle and sometimes even downright terrify us, but one fear that many of us carry throughout the year is the fear of cognitive decline as we age. While it’s true that dementia and other types of Alzheimer’s disease are more prevalent as we grow older, it’s also true that there are steps we can each take today to maintain a healthy brain and reduce our risk for cognitive decline:
Maintain Good Overall Health. A number of health conditions can affect cognitive functioning, but the good news is we have some control over our ability to avoid them, such as following a healthy diet and exercise plan to maintain heart health and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, and getting regular medical checkups to stay in optimal physical health.
Stay Safe. Some studies have noted an elevated risk for dementia in those who have suffered moderate to severe traumatic brain injury. Safety measures such as wearing a helmet when bicycling, wearing seatbelts in the car, reducing fall risks through education, and refraining from driving while impaired by alcohol or medications can reduce the risk for brain injury.
Be Aware of Medicine Side Effects. As beneficial as medications are, combinations of certain types of drugs can result in brain complications such as memory loss, confusion, delusion, and hallucinations. Review a full list of medications with a doctor experienced in polypharmacy (one who understands the interactions of different medication combinations) to make sure the combinations you or a loved one is taking are safe.
Stay Social. Loneliness and social isolation have shown to be connected to a higher incidence of dementia and other cognitive problems. For the elderly, this is especially concerning, as it can become more challenging to leave home due to physical infirmities and/or the inability to drive – but it’s imperative to ensure seniors stay socially active.
Nightingale Homecare, the Sun City home health care experts, are available to help seniors keep a healthy brain, body and mind through our professional in-home care services. Customized to each individual, we can help in a variety of ways:
Friendly companionship to keep isolation and loneliness at bay
Encouragement and participation in physician-approved exercise programs
Fall risk assessments and assistance with ambulation and mobility
Help with personal care tasks, such as bathing and dressing
Preparation of nutritious meals
Transportation and accompaniment to medical appointments, fun outings, and more
Exercise: we know it’s so important to maintain our flexibility and agility, to keep our heart healthy, and our weight under control. But equally important as physical exercise is the need to exercise and sharpen our minds, especially as we age.
Decades ago, we used to believe that senility in older years was a given, and that no matter what we do, memory and brain function just decline. Although this may be true for persons afflicted with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, it is not true for the remainder of the elderly population. Studies have shown that the aging brain will continue to function at full-speed as long as it is exercised and cared for, say authors Alan D. Bragdon and David Gamon, Ph.D. “Use it or lose it!” they report, in their book by the same title.
Granted, the aging brain can and does show signs of mental slipping without a dementia diagnosis. You may notice more forgetfulness as you age, like forgetting where you left items, or not recalling the name of someone you recently met. And though people of all ages have normal momentary lapses in memory, it becomes concerning when degeneration and frequent lapses in short-term memory are noticed.
Often, though, the elderly just falsely assume that their brains are failing and give into the “inevitability.” This belief leads to practices that will reduce brain function with repetitive bad habits: watching TV all day, isolating, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and not setting goals or seeking new challenges. These habits harm every organ in the body, especially the brain. The good news is, much can be done to improve memory, and the sooner you begin, the greater the return.
Here are just 3 practices that, if developed into lifelong habits, will keep your brain thriving:
Challenge Yourself with Something New Every Day. Trying new experiences, learning new things, and challenging your mind with activities that are unfamiliar are excellent ways to keep your mind alert and agile. In older adults, the boost to mental acuity that comes with just short mental exercises can make a big difference. The confidence that comes from learning something new not only helps the synapses, it improves quality of life and problem-solving skills. Learning a new language is great for the brain, but even simpler tasks like memorizing poetry, doing a crossword puzzle, playing chess with the grandkids or planning the ins and outs of a vacation to an unfamiliar destination are all ways that will keep your mind active and sharp. Learning new things can significantly improve important everyday skills, like driving reaction times and memory. Mixing up your normal routine by shopping at a different store, taking another route home or changing habits regularly also helps to create new brain pathways and makes life interesting along the way.
Brain Food Nurtures Neurons. Make a point to plan your nutrition with your brain in mind! Maintaining a balanced, healthy diet is imperative to improving brain health. It has been shown that eating fresh fruit and vegetables, and foods loaded with antioxidants like fresh blueberries, plays an important role in memory function. Coffee, teas, and other caffeinated beverages have also been shown to help improve brain function. And, keeping an appropriate weight can be vital in maintaining brain health. Those who are overweight develop circulatory challenges and diseases like diabetes that degrade blood vessel nerve cells and adversely affect brain health.
Physical Flexibility Promotes Mental Flexibility. Really! Your brain health is connected to how physically fit and active you are, as exercise improves the circulatory system, including circulation to the brain. Researchers aren’t sure why, but there are also many memory benefits from exercise that are not linked to blood circulation. It may be because exercise helps to improve mood and decrease stress, thereby improving brain function. Any kind of regular exercise is helpful, even if it is as simple as alternating standing on one leg for 20 seconds.
Want more tips on helping older loved ones optimize both physical and mental health? Contact the Phoenix aging care experts at Nightingale Homecare!
Good news! Latest statistics are showing a dramatic reduction in the number of diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the main reasons cited for this improvement is the education level of our society. An increase in education may be linked to a larger reserve of cognitive functioning – so that even if certain neurons and synapses are lost from the development of Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a backup available to prevent dementia from taking hold. So the message is: never stop learning!
Beyond taking a class or learning a new skill, there are other steps we can take that may help with the prevention of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. These healthy habits are a great place to start:
Exercise. Among its countless other benefits, sticking to a regular, ongoing exercise regimen can potentially cut a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s nearly in half. It can also help reduce the progression of the disease in those already diagnosed. The goal is to strive for at least 150 minutes per week of moderately intensive exercise, including cardio, balance/coordination, and strength training activities.
Socialization. Connecting with others on a regular basis helps older adults stave off isolation and is also believed to help protect against Alzheimer’s.
Nutrition. Experts recommend replacing sugar, refined carbs and trans fats with a Mediterranean diet that includes lots of fruits and veggies, whole grains, fish and olive oil. Drinking tea each day could also help improve memory and slow the aging of the brain.
Sleep. Studies are linking poor sleep habits with not just a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, but a risk factor. If your senior loved one is unable to obtain an average of 8 hours of quality sleep each night, check with his or her physician for recommendations.
Relax. Stress is extremely hard on our brains, causing a reduction in the growth of nerve cells and even shrinking the area related to memory. Try lowering stress levels through regular relaxing activities, favorite hobbies and interests, and quiet, reflective time to pray or meditate.
The Phoenix in-home senior care team at Nightingale Homecare can provide more tips, resources, and assistance to help seniors and the families who care for them to thrive and remain healthy. Our professional caregivers are skilled in planning and preparing healthy meals, helping seniors engage in enjoyable activities, exercising, and serving as a friendly companion. We also offer a full range of skilled nursing and therapy services, to ensure seniors’ needs are fully met. Call us at 602-504-1555 to learn more!
A Nightingale representative would be happy to answer your questions or help you arrange for home care that is custom-fit to your needs.