Staying Sharp Keeping Sharp, Brain Health As You Age
Dr. Gary Small’s patient, Sharon, was afraid that she was developing Alzheimer’s disease, a condition her grandmother had when she was 79. The 46-year-old single mother of three teenagers was working full time and had been forgetting things, missing appointments, and finding it hard to focus her attention.
Small, director of the Longevity Center at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, did not believe Sharon had early-onset Alzheimer’s but agreed to test her anyway.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, less than 1 percent of people have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which can begin in a person’s 30s, 40s, and 50s due to rare genetic mutations.
Small also asked Sharon to enroll in the Longevity Center’s two-week research project to determine how a healthy lifestyle affects the brain. Before beginning the project, Sharon underwent tests, which included an MRI scan that showed her brain was working hard to remember things.
Sharon started the center’s program that involved daily physical exercise, memory training, a healthy diet, and relaxation exercises. Small tested Sharon after the program and saw a marked improvement in her memory. What’s more, her MRI scan results showed her brain had become more efficient.
Sharon was amazed at how her life had improved—and she even lost weight because of her diet and exercise. In addition, Sharon felt more confident at work and at home and was motivated to keep up her new “healthy brain habits” over the years.
Small said the two-week program shows how mental and physical exercise, stress reduction, and a healthy diet have a positive impact on cognition and brain metabolism. Yet, despite scientific proof that healthy behaviors can improve memory and reduce the risk of dementia, most people find it hard to change old habits, he said.
A growing number of studies show that making lifestyle changes that support good heart and brain health reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias as a person ages.
What is Brain Health?
Brain health refers to how well a person’s brain functions in everyday life. To be sure, brain health is just as important as a person’s physical health.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), brain health deal with how well the brain functions in at least four areas:
- Cognitive health—how well a person thinks, learns, and remember
- Motor function—how well a person makes and control movements, including balance
- Emotional function—how well a person interprets and responds to pleasant and unpleasant emotions
- Tactile function—how a person feels and responds to sensations and touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature
Certain age-related health conditions, such as stroke, heart disease, and substance abuse, and addiction, can affect the brain and pose risks to cognitive function, according to the NIA.
But, making small lifestyle changes as part of a daily routine can make a big difference as a person ages, as well as reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, according to the NIA.
Six Pillars of Brain Health
Since lifestyle has a significant impact on brain health, medical authorities at the Cleveland Clinic have identified activities, described as “6 Pillars,” that can strengthen the brain:
- Physical exercise. Exercise improves blood flow and memory and stimulates the chemical changes in the brain that enhances learning, mood, and thinking.
- Food and Nutrition. Lifestyle and environmental factors can place additional stress on the brain, resulting in a process called oxidation, which can damage brain cells. And, foods rich in antioxidants can help fight off the harmful effects of oxidation.
- Medical Health. Controlling and reducing health risks, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking, can decrease the risk of dementia and other illnesses and improve brain health.
- Sleep and relaxation. Sleep improves the immune system, improves mood, energizes the body, and may reduce the buildup of plaque in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Mental Fitness. Mental exercises, like working on puzzles or taking up a hobby, may improve brain function and promote new brain cell growth, which can decrease the likelihood of developing dementia.
- Social Interaction. Spending time with others, engaging in stimulating conversation, and leading an active life can protect against memory loss.
The combination of the 6 Pillars and taking on new challenges will help keep the brain sharp.
Challenge Your Brain
It was once thought that people were born with however many brain cells they would die with, according to Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School. But in the mid-1990s, it was discovered that people grow new brain cells throughout their lives, she said. And, new cell growth comes through challenging the brain.
So, what are some of the ways seniors can take on a brain challenge? Here are several ideas to keep your brain sharp as you age:
- Learn something new. Take a course online, at a university or community college. Reading a newspaper or magazine or listening to a podcast can also support brain health over time.
- Become a member of your local library. While libraries have print books, there are also e-books, audiobooks, films, book clubs, and a variety of other activities that can help to keep the brain sharp.
- Use a computer. Using a computer, tablet, or smartphone to access the Internet is one of the best ways to find information that can stimulate the brain.
- Keep enjoying hobbies and pursue new interests. Learning a new language or how to play an instrument or pursuing another complex activity raises the brain challenge even higher.
- Change your routine. Take a different route to the store or go to a store that you have not been to before. Since people are usually creatures of habit, changing daily routines can activate new brain pathways and add mental exercise to your day.
Small said his UCLA research team worked with the Gallup Poll organization to evaluate responses from 18,000 participants, ages 18-99, on behaviors that support memory. Participants who practiced one healthy behavior were 21 percent less likely to report memory problems. Additionally, respondents who practiced three healthy behaviors were 75 percent less likely to notice forgetfulness.
According to Small, the greater number of healthy lifestyle habits the respondents practiced, the better their memory scores.
While some people may find it difficult to make lifestyle changes, Small said the challenge becomes much easier when people understand the association between daily behavior and brain health. Once people see the connection, they can set reasonable goals and receive feedback that motivates them, he said.