Aging is no fun. Let’s face it, our bodies change, and unfortunately, our brains change as well.
Just as we can no longer keep our 20 or 30-year-old lifestyle as we age, our brains are aging too and start to exhibit symptoms that may be troubling. We may become forgetful, stumble to get out the right words, or not recognize someone we know. These can be symptoms of aging or signs that something more significant is going on. We cannot stop the aging process, but we can do some things to help slow down cognitive decline.
Our brain is the control center of our bodies. It regulates all of our bodily functions. It stores memories and inherits traits that make us who we are. Physical exercise, a good diet, and proper sleep keep our body in shape, and the same goes for our brain. Damage to the brain can not only come from blows to the head, concussions, or traumatic injuries. It can also occur from neglect, improper diet, sleep deprivation, and vascular issues such as strokes.
There are several ways to help to maintain good brain health, and as with most things, it starts with a healthy brain diet. Our western diet is full of fat, salt, carbohydrates, and refined sugar. These products are known to increase body weight, impair the function of the pancreas, and contribute to heart disease and vascular abnormalities, diabetes, and obesity.
It is recommended that a “Mediterranean Diet” is employed to keep the aging body and mind healthy. This type of diet emphasizes healthy fats, whole grains, fish, olive oil, and plants. Foods rich in Omega fatty acids are known to be vital for cell function and increase mental focus and slow cognitive decline in older adults. Try to eliminate processed foods from your diet.
Getting enough sleep is very important. When we talk about sleep, we are not referring to cat naps or fragmented sleep, we’re referring to consolidated sleep for a certain period of time (preferably at night). Recent Alzheimer’s studies have hypothesized that sleep is integral in clearing certain proteins in the brain that contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.
It is known that the adult brain needs at least 7-8 hours of “uninterrupted” sleep. What can interrupt sleep? Medications, diseases, incontinence, and sleep-disordered breathing, just to name a few conditions. A big issue is obstructive sleep apnea. In Sleep Apnea, the person falls asleep and as they do, their airway starts to narrow and/or collapse causing snoring, pauses in breathing, arousals, and low oxygen levels.
These dips in oxygen and frequent arousals can cause damage to the brain over time and keep the person from staying asleep. Improper sleep can also cause depression, anxiety, obesity, and mental decline. Persistent low oxygen levels can also cause heart issues which can make the heart work harder and not pump enough oxygenated blood to the tissues (hyperbaric oxygen therapy at home) of the brain.
Sleep is a restorative process to all of the cells in our bodies, especially the brain. To help maintain a good sleeping environment try to:
Exercise is another important tenet of a healthy brain routine. Physical activity above and beyond our normal activity is important. When the body is getting exercise, it increases our blood flow to the brain as well as the rest of the body. It also helps the body to release “feel-good” chemicals like endorphins.
The goal is to get at least 30-60 minutes of exercise three times a week or more. This depends on your physical ability to perform. Always check with your healthcare provider to be sure that the program you are about to embark on is right for you. Good exercises as we age are walking, swimming, biking, Tai chi, yoga, or even chair exercises for someone who is homebound. The point is to keep moving if you can!
Social interactions are very important for proper brain and cognitive health. Isolation can contribute to depression and anxiety. Some studies link isolation to brain atrophy and dementia. It is known that people who are hard of hearing and do not wear hearing aids can develop cognitive decline.
Deafness or being hard of hearing is a form of social isolation. When we do not interact with others, our brains are not processing any new information and are not being stimulated. For those that are socially isolated it is important to reach out to friends and family on a routine basis. Phone calls, facetime calls, or in-person get-togethers.
If able, they should leave their homes to join a support group, senior center, or club to maintain interaction with others. With the advent of social media and advanced technology, no one should feel isolated any longer. Look for local events to meet new people. It doesn’t have to be costly or take up too much of your time, and you might enjoy yourself and make some new friends!
Things to look out for regarding cognitive decline:
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's or dementia. Every year there is more information on prevention and hopefully, there will be a cure in the near future.
In the meantime, stay busy, exercise, try some puzzles or card games to keep your brain stimulated and eat and sleep properly if you can. If you think that you may have some cognitive decline or some you love may be suffering, reach out to a physician and have a frank discussion about the symptoms. Some medications can slow the progression of some dementias. Below are some resources:
Here's to healthy aging!
Author Profile: Laura Castricone, Respiratory Therapist
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