Last week I talked about the three protective factors that help keep our brains healthy as we age: exercise, nutrition and attitude. Now we’ll look at each of these in a bit more depth.
Our brains need oxygen to work. To get oxygenated blood up there, we need to keep our heart and lungs healthy. That means moving our bodies! We all can find ways to move our bodies, even with limitations! Aerobic exercise and resistance training (weights) both appear to improve oxygen levels in the brain. What matters here is that you do something every day. There is added benefit to exercising in nature and doing it with friends. Maybe it is just walking a block or two or maybe it’s participating in a triathlon. Moving your body will make your brain happy.
Exercise also promotes good sleep. Sleep is essential for your brain to function well. As we age, the amount of sleep we need may actually decrease, and there is research showing that waking up in the middle of the night and going back to sleep might actually be better for some than sleeping for 8 or 9 hours straight. Sleep experts recommend that your sleep environment be cool, have no electronics (TVs and clocks), and use shades or curtains to block light. Personally, I like having a TV in my bedroom, but I make sure I turn it off before I go to sleep.
Pain keeps many folks awake at night. Medications prescribed for pain may interfere with some aspects of sleep and long-term use may not be good for you. Other things that interfere with a good night’s sleep include alcohol, going to bed too early, and worrying about whether you are getting enough sleep (this actually keeps you awake!). Before I had my hip replacement surgery, my nights were long and my quality of sleep was very poor. I gave myself permission to take naps so that I wouldn’t be sleep deprived. Once my pain was gone, I was back to sleeping like a baby.
Nutrition is more challenging as we age. Many of us will experience loss in our ability to taste and smell foods. These sensory inputs are critical for a healthy appetite. Consuming food can be challenging also, since so many people have food sensitivities or difficulty with digestion. Of course, being able to chew food is essential. Since dental care is not covered by Medicare, there are many elders who may have serious dental issues that go untreated, making it difficult to eat right. Access to quality fresh fruits and vegetables year round may be problematic where you live, or you may not shop or cook any longer. For many elders on a limited income, food insufficiency is the norm. This contributes to poor cognitive functioning. The good news is that with proper nutrition, cognitive functioning improves.
So what does the brain actually need? Research is quite muddled in attempting to address this question. You can find studies done by governmental agencies such as the National Institutes for Health which has its traditional research (NIH.gov), its alternative and complementary research (http://nccam.nih.gov), as well as an office of dietary supplements (http://ods.od.nih.gov). Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much evidence supporting the notion that supplements have specific effect on AD. Gingko biloba will not stop your memory loss. Assuming you are eating the right combination of calories and foods that nourish your body and mind, and you aren’t experiencing a disease that affects your ability to absorb nutrients, your need for supplements may be very low.
Many people don’t trust pharmaceuticals because they believe that Big Pharma is just out to take their money. This approach thinking should also be used when considering your need for supplements. Many of us will not do the research or have sufficient knowledge of how our bodies work to understand what it is that we are putting in our body. Instead, we rely on what trusted friends and/or family tell us, or just take something because it’s labeled “natural”. Frequently, this is throwing good money after bad, and occasionally, it can even become life threatening. Take home message here is don’t believe every claim made just because it’s “natural”. Learn about your body and learn about what it needs.
Attitude may be the one thing that is totally within your control. Depression and anxiety are often at the root of memory problems! Sadness and anxiety are not typical consequences of aging, and addressing these issues can and will improve your quality of life. If you notice you are anxious or overly sad, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist or getting involved in a support group. Finding a therapist is getting more challenging these days since many do not take insurance. Therapy can be expensive, and not everyone can afford it. This is something I am particularly saddened by, since therapy is often more effective than anti-depressants alone. If cost is an issue, there are resources online, as well as low-cost clinics.
Our brains love new things! Ironically, if we don’t continue to challenge our minds and change habits, our brains become sluggish. Learning and exposure to new ideas, places or people will result in keeping your brain flexible and engaged. You don’t have to go back to school to learn new things. You can do something fun, like brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, or rearrange pictures on your wall or take a different route to the store. You can break out of your box and listen to different kinds of music or go to a museum. While crossword puzzles and online games offer focused activities, joining a chorus or playing mahjong with others will bring you added benefit of socialization and collegiality.
Connecting with others is great for your memory health. Ours is a generation that thrived on group activities. Continuing this over the lifespan just makes sense. It is also important to make friends with younger people. Not all of us have children. We need to find ways to connect with younger generations so we can stay current. Loss is inevitable as we age. As our contemporaries pass, we become the tellers of the tales and the holders of the memories. Having someone to tell your story to, is just as important and having a story to tell.
Managing stress is an essential skill. Many of us will end up providing caregiving to partners, spouses, parents, and friends. This is one of the most stressful things we face as we age. Developing support networks before help is needed is a sound strategy to adopt. Stress management can be done through meditation, listening to soothing music, turning off the TV and putting down the phone. Take a few deep breaths, think of things that make you grateful, do something nice for yourself and then do something nice for someone else.
I’ve got to continue checking things off my list before I go on my sabbatical. More to come along the way! Thanks for reading.