Brain Health In The Elderly, Why It Is So Important
The cognitive decline associated with an aging brain is a frightening thought for many older adults.
But there is good news, as research increasingly suggests that seniors who regularly “exercise” their brain and practice other healthy lifestyle habits may be able to avoid – or at least hold off – the mild mental decline that so often accompanies old age.
About Your Aging Brain
Weighing in at an average of just 3 pounds, our brains shoulder tremendous responsibility.
Of course, we all recognize the importance of the brain when it comes to cognitive function. But the brain plays an equally important role in other aspects of our lives, including:
Motor Function: The ability to make and control movements.
Emotional Function: How we control and respond to emotions.
Sensory Function: How well we feel and respond to touch, pain, and temperature
With a healthy brain, you don’t have to think about any of these functions. But as we get older, the brain begins to change in some fundamental ways:
Certain areas of the brain – especially those related to learning and complex mental activities – begin to shrink.
Communication between neurons in the brain may become reduced.
Blood flow to the brain can decrease.
Inflammation (the body’s response to an injury) may increase.
Any of these changes can affect mental function. So even healthy seniors might find themselves forgetting doctor’s appointments and misplacing their car keys more frequently than they had in the past.
Fitness for the Aging Brain
Fortunately, there are simple steps we can all take to preserve – and even improve – the brain’s performance as we age:
Keep the Mind Stimulated: Activities that stimulate the mind – for example, reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing memory games, taking a course, or painting and drawing — encourage connections to form between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells. As a result, even an aging brain can become more efficient and adaptive.
Stay Physically Fit: Animal studies suggest regular exercise (at least 150 minutes per week) increases the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the parts of the brain responsible for thought. Like mind stimulation, this may also encourage the development of new nerve cells and increase the connections between brain cells. And of course, regular exercise promotes healthy blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, and reduces stress, all of which contribute to a healthy brain, as well as a healthy heart.
Good Nutrition: A healthy diet can go a long way to improving brain health. In fact, the Mediterranean diet (which emphasizes healthy fats, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables) has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Keep Blood Sugar and Cholesterol Under Control: Diabetes and high levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) are both associated with an increased risk of dementia. Healthy eating and regular exercise may be enough to rein in blood sugar and cholesterol, but be sure to ask a doctor for help when they aren’t.
Try Low-Dose Aspirin: Research suggests a daily, low-dose of aspirin can reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia.
Avoid Tobacco: Vascular problems linked to smoking – including brain bleeds and strokes – are associated with a higher risk of dementia. Toxins in tobacco smoke also increase oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Limit alcohol intake to a drink or two per day, as excessive consumption is a known risk factor for dementia.
Be Attentive to Your Emotional Health: People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted usually score poorly on cognitive tests.
Protect Your Head: Moderate to severe head injuries – not just concussions — have been linked to cognitive impairment.
Stay Socially Engaged: People with strong social ties have a lower risk of dementia, lower blood pressure, and longer lifespan.
Avoid Brain-Slowing Medications When Possible: Some drugs are known to affect brain function include those prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, overactive bladder, vertigo, and allergies. Whenever possible, opt for non-drug solutions or alternative treatments.
Consider Getting a Pet: According to one recent study, seniors who participate in animal therapy tend to be more socially engaged, less depressed, and less agitated.
Attend to Spiritual Health: A place of worship — whether a church, synagogue, or mosque — offers seniors a chance to make social connections and participate in meaningful activities.
Knowing When to See a Doctor
Unfortunately, some people will experience more severe memory issues as they age:
Asking the same questions over and over again
Getting lost in places they know well
Not being able to follow directions
Becoming more confused about time, people, and places
Not taking care of themselves —eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe
These problems are generally NOT associated with normal brain aging, and often result from a stroke, dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. Older adults experiencing any of the above issues should be evaluated by a doctor and followed-up roughly every six months to ensure memory problems haven’t worsened.