If the TV commercials for supplements to enhance brain health are any indication, people are concerned about keeping their brain healthy, especially as they age. It’s a valid concern; most of us know someone who has suffered from Alzheimer’s or other dementia, and it can be heartbreaking for not only the patient, but their family. Most of us would choose to avoid that fate if we could, but until not that long ago, declining brain health was considered an unavoidable part of aging, at least for some people.
As a greater percentage of the population enters their golden years, scientists offer good news: there are things you can do to keep a healthy brain (or help an aging parent maintain brain health). Even better: most of them are simple, readily available, and best of all, enjoyable.
Doctors have increasingly come to recognize that what we eat affects not just physical health, but brain health as we age. No diet guarantees a healthy brain, but certain choices improve your chances. The Mayo Clinic recommends the MIND diet. MIND stands for Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. A combination of the popular Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, the diet is heavy on vegetables, especially green leafy ones; limiting meat, especially red meat; using more olive oil; and enjoying lots of berries, and nuts.
Exercise isn’t just a boon for your body; it helps keep your brain healthy as well. Regular physical exercise promotes blood flow to the brain and can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia as well as stroke and heart attack. At least 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise is recommended each day; walking, yoga, yard work, swimming, or an exercise class all count.
No, literally—playing games and doing puzzles is good for your brain health. A study reported in JAMA Neurology suggests that playing games may play a role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. You can fiddle with a Rubik’s cube, do a jigsaw puzzle, or attack the daily crossword or Sudoku in the newspaper. In other words, you don’t need to have someone else around to get the neurological benefits of playing a game, but playing a game with others might be even better—see the next tip for why.
But socializing is more than just fun; gerontology research has demonstrated that social relationships can help keep aging brains young and even heal them.
The COVID pandemic has probably reminded most of us how much we miss getting together with friends and loved ones. But socializing is more than just fun; gerontology research has demonstrated that social relationships can help keep aging brains young and even heal them. When circumstances permit, join a book club, establish a regular breakfast meet-up, or join a volunteer group. As an added bonus, many studies have shown that people with close friends live longer than those who are more isolated.
Believe it or not, playing a musical instrument can improve your brain health. Research has shown musical practice to be associated with both functional and structural plasticity of the brain. Studies of older adults show that after practicing a musical instrument for an hour per week for for months, the seniors exhibited improvements in the brain regions that control memory, hand movement, and hearing. Even if you’ve never played a musical instrument in your life, now may be the time to start.
Reading and writing both help you keep a healthy day. The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging reported that reading books can decrease the chance of developing dementia by 50%, especially when connected with other brain-building activities. At least a half-hour of reading daily is recommended, though it need not be all in one chunk.
Handwriting is reported by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience to stimulate the regions of the brain that involve memory, thinking, and language. So read a good book—and then write someone a letter about it.
Many of these tips involve keeping the brain active and engaged in learning, so it’s no surprise that going back to school promotes brain health. You need not pursue a degree; just take a course that interests you at a local community college or adult education center. The act of listening, observing, and processing novel information is what’s good for your brain. And if you do want to pursue a degree, many colleges offer scholarships and discounts for older adults.
Older people often have difficulty sleeping, and assume that means they need less sleep. That’s actually false. Sleep is when your brain relaxes and processes the day’s events and memories, but as we age, the brain has a harder time forming short term memories as we sleep. In order to avoid memory loss, you need seven or eight hours of good sleep per night. If you struggle to get that much, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to tweak your medications or recommend a supplement. Keeping busy during the day with some of the other tips, like exercise and socializing, may also help you sleep better at night.
It’s not yet possible to guarantee that you won’t develop dementia, but it makes sense to minimize your risk. While you’re taking action, put a plan in place for incapacity. Hopefully, with the other measures you’re taking, you’ll never need to use it. If you have any questions about this article, or planning for your needs as you age, please contact our Northville or Brighton offices.