We’ve heard the saying “use it or lose it”. This isn’t just an old wives’ tale, it is sound advice for all of us to remember as we age. Both our physical and cognitive functioning abilities can slide. The University of Canberra reports that there is an estimated 459,000 Australians living with dementia. A figure that is expected to increase to 590,000 by 2028 and 1,076,000 by 2058.
Fortunately, a growing body of new research holds promise to improve and protect brain health and possibly stave off dementia and cognitive decline.
Implementing the strategies found in these studies can help boost brain health and aid in the fight against dementia.
The key recommendations to improve brain health include:
1. Sleep Tight
Although experts have yet to concretely connect the dots explaining why sleep problems are associated with early indications of Alzheimer’s, numerous studies conducted over the past few decades link sleep disturbances to poor brain health.
One such study from Boston University Medical Centre in the USA linked obstructive sleep apnoea, the sleep condition that causes brief periods of partial or complete stoppage of breathing, with higher rates of cognitive impairment. A key to preventing brain decline is to check with sleep partners to see if they have noticed you snoring or stopping breathing while sleeping. Discuss any daytime sleepiness with a doctor and discuss sleep apnoea screening.
It is important to establish a pattern for sleeping. Go to bed and wake up in the morning around the same times.
Keep the bedroom cool and dark. Use an automatic thermostat to lower the temperature overnight and/or use lighter weight blankets. Replace bedroom curtains with block out blinds on the windows.
Avoid heavy eating and/or drinking prior to bedtime. If hungry, reach for a small snack instead.
2. Step Up
Walking is great for the waistline, but The Mind Shift Foundation has found it can give a big boost to brain health too. The impact of the foot hitting the ground produces pressure waves in the body that significantly increase blood flow to the brain, which help to prevent dementia. Along with an overall sense of well-being, those surges of blood help maintain health and cognitive function.
Don’t pressure yourself to jog or run. Research has found that even though the foot’s impact with the ground is lighter when walking compared to running, walking still produces large pressure waves in the body that significantly increase blood flow to the brain. As there’s no contact between the foot and the ground when riding a bike, cycling has no effect on beneficial pressure waves in the brain.
Increase daily walking by:
- Take the stairs rather than the lift. If only going up one or two floors in a building, climb the stairs for some quick cardio.
- Go the extra mile. Drop bags in the car after shopping and walk an extra lap (or two) around the shopping centre.
- Join a walking club. Form one of your own with family or friends for good exercise and socialisation.
3. Go Nuts
Although a healthy and balanced diet is known to promote brain health, researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact connection between what we eat and dementia prevention, but some progress has been made. A study by the University of Illinois in the USA says that monounsaturated fatty acids, which are nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados, may hold the key to having a healthy brain.
Foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids are key components of the Mediterranean diet, which is also linked to protecting long-term brain health. Eating foods rich in these acids is believed to contribute to optimal functioning of the networking in your brain responsible for preserving cognition. This can be as easy as replacing a conventional vegetable salad with a crunchy nut salad.
Focus on fresh foods and avoid additives. Fill your grocery shopping basket with vegetables, fruit, and seafood (all components of the Mediterranean diet). Foods and additives to avoid include processed meats, added sugars, and trans fats.
4. Find Your Zen
It has been widely reported that as little as 25 minutes a day of Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can significantly improve brain function and energy levels.
This type of yoga and mindfulness focuses the brain’s processing power on a select number of things like your breathing or a yoga pose. These exercises improve focus and concentration in everyday life. Here are some further ideas to incorporate more peacefulness into your life:
Writing can also be an excellent means of coping through difficult times. Keeping a journal provides a means to note down daily experiences, as well as an opportunity to review these at a later time, remembering positive achievements.
Many people miss the opportunity that breakfast presents. Eating a more balanced breakfast (and sitting down when doing so) is far better than tossing back that cup of coffee on the way out the door and will provide more energy.
At the other end of the day, especially if it’s been a particularly challenging one, try not to bring that frustration home. Explore a new route, stop at a local bookstore, or go for a quick walk in the park to release anger and lower the risk of venting at the family.
5. Get Plenty of Vitamin C
Vitamin C can do more than fight a nasty cold. It is thought to have a significant impact on cognition. Vitamin C is found in the most colourful fruit and veggies such as orange juice, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and kiwi. When cooking Vitamin C rich vegetables, steaming is best to retain as much of the vitamins as possible.
This power of this vitamin is that it is thought to lower oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is when free radicals are more powerful than the body’s ability to fight them, which can cause a decline in brain health and overall well-being.
Whilst not a substitute for fresh fruit or vegetables, Vitamin C is also readily available as a supplement, often in an easily chewable form.
6. Be Heart Smart
The same risk factors that cause heart disease are also said to be major contributors to late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. The connection is believed to be adequate blood flow, which both the heart and brain need to function properly.
As we age, blood vessels can slowly become narrow, preventing optimum blood flow throughout the body. This form of heart disease is one of the leading causes of heart attacks and strokes and causes damage to blood vessels leading in and out of the brain which threatens brain health.
Most risk factors for narrowing of the arteries, called atherosclerosis, can be lessened with a heart-healthy diet, avoiding tobacco products, monitoring/controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels and daily exercise. Your heart, body, brain and mood will all benefit from movement so avoid sitting for too long, and remember to take regular breaks to stand up, stretch, and/or walk around.
Having a pet can also be heart smart. A happy cat sitting on your lap and purring can be very calming. A dog will willingly accompany you on walks, provide company, and become very devoted to you.
Stress management is also vital. We may not be able to eliminate stress from life completely, but we can find ways to better manage it. It doesn’t help to become the strong, silent type. Talk through any worries and/or concerns with others.
7. Manage Blood Sugar
In several studies, high blood sugar has been shown to be connected to lower brain function. This could be one explanation for the increased risk of Alzheimer’s in those living with Type 2 diabetes. The study showed that just a one percent increase in the two- to three-month blood glucose average is associated with a lower brain health score on a series of cognitive function and memory tests.
Portion control when serving food can help. Think of light bulbs, tennis balls, and computer mice as examples of portion sizes, and try serving meals on smaller plates. The larger the plates, the more tempting it is to fill them and hence over eat.
Timing of food consumption also plays a role in managing blood sugar. Heaviermeals should be eaten for breakfast and/or lunch, rather than dinner. Human bodies become more insulin resistant later in the day and larger meals take longer to digest as well.
When it comes to managing blood sugars, water should always be the beverage of choice. It will flush out toxins, remove blood sugars from the kidney and prevent dehydration.
Our bodies will also warn us when blood sugars get low. Pay attention to increased headaches, tiredness, blurred vision, and/or trips to the bathroom to urinate. Take these symptoms seriously and see your doctor immediately.
8. Monitor, Watch and Listen
Blood sugars aren’t the only things to monitor in the body. Keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These can both be controlled with regular exercise, limited alcohol intake, reduced stress and a proper diet. Blood pressure and high cholesterol can also be managed with medication. Two of the most effective blood sugar medication types are diuretics (e.g. chlorthalidone, torsemide, and/or amiloride), and beta-blockers
Regular monitoring of the six classic human vital signs will keep you in check – blood pressure, pulse, temperature, respiration, height and weight. A routine trip to the doctor can monitor these signs and check your blood work to look for anything out of the ordinary. They can also review or prescribe any medications as needed.
9. Get Moving
Regular exercise does the body, mind, and spirit good, but not all exercise is equal. For example, any exercise may help prevent dementia. However, aerobic exercise such as swimming, walking, running, biking may increase grey matter in the brain and trigger other beneficial changes. Vary the exercise so that it doesn’t become boring and therefore harder to stick to.
It is also better to do something, rather than doing nothing at all. However, doing too much can become risky for seniors. Walking and swimming are both excellent exercises and much gentler on older joints and muscles. Starting any new exercise regimen should always be done slowly.
In addition to improving health, exercise also reduces the chance of falling. Stronger muscles and increased flexibility improve the ability to stand, balance, and walk more securely.
10. Break up with your Coffee Cup
Filling your morning mug with tea instead of coffee can lessen the risk of cognitive impairment, according to a study from the National University of Singapore. The researchers found a cup of tea a day lowers the risk of cognitive decline by 50 percent.
Caffeine comes in both drinks and foods, so it is also important to watch consumption of chocolate, ice cream and desserts, all of which may contain additional caffeine. Some medications may also contain caffeine, so check the label.
Another substitute for the morning coffee could be juice. Three of the best juices for seniors are prune, apple, and pear. These are vitamin and nutrient-rich, plus help reduce constipation.
5 Highly Recommended Cognitive Activities to Boost Brain Health
Beyond these lifestyle recommendations to increase mental health, there are many other proven activities that help. These include:
- Read a book. Find a quiet spot, open a book, and learn from or travel with the author. Revisit some of your favourite books from your own library or try something new. If you are experimenting with different authors, borrow titles from your local public library. To keep your costs down, you could also purchase books from a second-hand bookshop or op-shop.
- Do a class. Computers? Creative writing? Cooking? Whatever the subject, there are many adult education classes offered at Community Centres, schools or even online.
- Tackle a crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzles can get the mental wheels rolling. The local newspaper might publish a crossword, or the local bookshop will have a good assortment of “puzzling” books for different levels of players (easy, intermediate, and most difficult). Word search puzzles can also improve cognitive abilities.
- Play board games. Challenge someone you know to a game of chess and challenge your brain to strategise. Help your children improve their money counting and math skills by playing Monopoly. There are many other board games which can be great fun to play and great exercise for the brain.
- Associate with good people. Negativity often breeds negativity. Therefore, connecting with more positive individuals (e.g. those who are friendly, cheerful, supportive and/or who share your same beliefs and values) can work wonders for mental health.
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