Aging Well: Lifestyle Choices Enhance Brain Health

Courtesy Frye Art Museum. Photo: Jonathan Vanderweit.

By Keri Pollock

Lifestyle choices are some of the most effective and easiest ways to enhance brain health. What we eat, how we spend our free time, how much physical activity and social enrichment we engage in, all play a part. And anything positive you do for your heart will also benefit your brain.

Last week (July 14-18) the AAIC 2019 – Alzheimer’s Association International Conference – took place in Los Angeles. There, over 5,000 dementia researchers, students and faculty from around the world came together to share their discoveries.

This year, as in previous years, several presentations focused on Alzheimer’s prevention and the common thread of these research studies show how adopting a healthy lifestyle may offset environmental and genetic risks of developing dementia, as well as support brain health.

As Aging Life Care Professionals®, we are always on the outlook for how to weave healthy lifestyle practices into our clients’ lives (as well as our own).  Cognitive stimulation and social connection through arts engagement programs are some of our clients’ favorite activities and are rich in benefits. Clients’ lives are enriched by music (including visits to the symphony or opera), dance, garden walks, Alzheimer’s cafes, art gallery talks, movie discussions, and hands-on arts programs. They open doors to creativity, new friendships, a renewed sense of purpose, and often, improved mood, reduced anxiety, increased appetite, and better sleep.

Let’s take a look at some of the healthy lifestyle habits that researchers found contribute to brain (and heart) health and may decrease the risk of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as slow the progression of dementia:

 

  • A healthy diet. “This would include eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of fish and non-processed foods,” says El?bieta Ku?ma, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School and presenter at AAIC 2019. The Mediterranean diet, which stresses the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil, is often cited as a good model for brain health nutrition.

 

  • Stop smoking. If you are a smoker, quit. As a former smoker (30 years smoke-free), I know how difficult this is. But the benefits of quitting are overwhelming. Many health care systems and hospitals offer smoke cessation programs and support groups. Not only is smoking a financial drain, but it is also a drain on health. Here are some smoke cessation ideas from the CDC that you may find helpful.

 

  • Engage in regular exercise. Optimal exercise is defined as regular physical activity of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week — or an equivalent combination. Find something you love to do — walking, hiking, bicycling, dancing, swimming – and do it regularly. Find classes or friends with whom to engage in regular exercise, as it will help with encouragement and accountability.

 

  • Cognitive stimulation. Engaging in lifelong learning seems to be key. The brain is constantly building new neural pathways. Read, take classes, learn new things. Our brains our hungry to intellectual nourishment. Here’s a recent story about how research is showing great benefits of learning new things and the positive impact on thinking and memory: Want to keep your brain sharp in old age? Go back to school

 

  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Excessive consumption of alcohol can contribute to a myriad of health challenges, adverse effects on the nervous system and can be a factor in falls and other preventable accidents. If you do drink, do so in moderation. A recent study defined moderate consumption as the equivalent of two glasses of wine a night.

 

  • Stay socially engaged. More and more research students show a tie between social isolation and loneliness and poor outcomes for cognitive and physical health. When we engage in conversation and community with others, our moods are positively affected, we tend to make more healthy choices, and it contributes to cognitive stimulation. Community and senior centers, faith communities, neighborhood gatherings, alumni associations for schools and workplaces are some of the places to get connected.

 

  • Follow medical advice for managing chronic conditions that affect the brain such as hypertension and diabetes. Both of these conditions are leading contributors, unchecked, to cognitive impairment.

 

  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can impair cognitive function. Six to eight hours a night of quality sleep is what is recommended. If you have sleep apnea, or are concerned about this condition, check with your health care provider for testing as heavy snoring and sleep apnea are tied to cognitive decline. Adequate, consistent sleep is restorative, healing, and necessary to supporting brain health. Sleep is the brain’s way of cleaning house.

Need extra encouragement? Consider this: according to the Alzheimer’s Association, reporting from the AAIC 2019, “One study reported that participants who adopted four or five low-risk lifestyle factors had about 60% lower risk of Alzheimer’s dementia compared with participants who did not follow any or only one of the low-risk factors.”

RESOURCES

About the author: Keri Pollock has worked in the field of aging for over 25 years and directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care™ practice in Seattle. She serves on the Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State Chapter Discovery Conference Planning Committee, and the Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee at the Frye Art Museum. Follow Aging Wisdom on FacebookTwitter, LinkedIn and SoundCloud.

This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be a substitute for, professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Information on this blog does not necessarily reflect official positions of the Aging Life Care Association™and is provided “as is” without warranty. Always consult with a qualified professional with any particular questions you may have regarding your or a family member’s needs.

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