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Living A Brain-Healthy Lifestyle
While we cannot control our genes, and whether we are biologically at a slightly higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia, there are lifestyle factors that are in our control and can have a significant impact on our brain health. Current research has identified several factors that can impact our overall brain health, including:
- Emotional wellness
- Medication management
- Mental stimulation
As we age, we may start to experience losses that result in having a smaller social circle. Children may move out of state, friends and family members may pass away, and sometimes people find themselves spending more time alone. This may lead to feelings of sadness or depression, which also has consequences on brain health.
When we’re out in the world, our brains are alert, ready to navigate through new environments and respond to changes as needed. When we are home alone there is no need for that level of alertness, and our brains do not get the same level of stimulation.
Sleep also plays an essential role in brain health. When we are in the deepest levels of sleep, known as REM sleep, our brains produce less amyloid than at other times of the day. An excessive buildup of amyloid is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So, if sleep apnea, severe snoring or other sleep disturbances prevent us from getting quality REM sleep, we lose that benefit of low amyloid production. To maximize quality sleep, practice good sleep hygiene, such as going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, as well as avoiding reading, watching TV or eating in bed.
Prescription and over-the-counter medications can impact our cognition because our bodies respond differently to medication as we age. The American Geriatrics Society has created a list of medications that can impact cognition in older adults commonly referred to as the Beers List. If you are taking a medication from this list, don’t stop taking it; instead, talk with your doctor and find out if there’s an alternative.
Because vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia, anything that is good for the heart is good for the brain. This includes diet and exercise. Recommendations for exercise vary depending on your physical health, but if approved by a physician, 30 minutes of exercise five days per week is optimal. Try for a combination of aerobic exercise, strengthening and whole-body exercise, such as Tai Chi. A diet rich in antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids, such as the Mediterranean or DASH diet, is thought to be the best way to eat for brain health.
Being sure to get enough mental stimulation every day is a critical factor, too. Every time we attend a lecture, go to a concert or an art museum, join a book club, etc., we are building our cognitive reserve. Our brains have a built-in ability for neuroplasticity, which means that we can change, learn and adapt throughout our lifetime, which is so important when we experience some sort of cognitive decline.
However, to maximize this, it takes targeted, systematic mental stimulation, such as cognitive training classes. Research has shown that in some cases, curriculum-based, structured cognitive training is able to slow functional decline and onset of dementia. Research-based cognitive training classes are available locally through Mind University, a joint program of JVS and Jewish Family Service of Metropolitan Detroit.
Lynn Breuer, LMSW, is the geriatric care management supervisor and older adult services marketing manager at Jewish Family Service.