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Brain Health: Keeping an Aging Brain Sharp

According to the National Institute on Aging, our brains control many aspects of thinking, remembering, planning, organizing, and making decisions. As we age, our brains physically change. Certain parts of the brain can shrink, especially those that control learning and mental activities. In other brain regions, communication between neurons might not be as effective when compared to the brains of younger adults. While these changes are normal parts of aging, there are some things we can do to maintain our brain health. Our diet, exercise habits, socialization, and even how we manage our day-to-day stress can affect our brain health and cognitive function. 

What is Brain Health?

Brain health is commonly used to refer to mental clarity and cognition, however, the term encapsulates a wide range of brain functions, all of which need to be maintained to age well. According to the National Institute on Aging, brain health refers to how well a person’s brain functions across several different areas. The reason why brain health is important is that it covers all these aspects:

  • Cognitive health — how well you think, learn and remember 
  • Motor function — how well you control movements, including balance and coordination
  • Emotional function — how well you interpret, manage and respond to emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant
  • Tactile function — how well you feel and respond to sensations of physical touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature  

Factors that Influence Brain Health 

Research suggests that making small changes to your daily routine, including changes in your diet and social life, can help your brain function and decrease your risk of cognitive decline. These changes can also improve your memory and decrease your risk of developing memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Growing research suggests these factors have the most impact on the brain health of older adults: 

Diet

Our brains and bodies are deeply connected. Our overall brain health is significantly impacted by our physical health. Eating a balanced diet is important for mental clarity and longevity, however, there are a few specialized diets that are linked to improved brain health and a decreased risk of memory loss.  

The Mediterranean diet is based on traditional foods that people used to eat in countries like Italy and Greece. Researchers have noted that these people were exceptionally healthy and had a lowered risk of many lifestyle diseases. The Mediterranean diet is focused heavily on fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, bread, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil. Another notable diet is the DASH diet, which was created to reduce blood pressure but also offers many other health benefits. It keeps a closer eye on sodium levels, with the standard DASH diet encouraging 2,300 mg or less per day. 

Combined, these two diets create the MIND diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is great evidence that diet can improve brain health, in addition to potentially lowering cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This diet highlights the importance of vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, plant-based meals, and one glass of red wine per day.  

Exercise

As we get older, one of the best ways to keep our bodies feeling young is to exercise. The same goes for our brain health. According to Time Magazine, as we exercise our bodies create a protein called BDNF, which is vital for growing and maintaining neurons and improving communication between brain cells. Physical activity can also prevent brain inflammation, reduce stress, and increase melatonin, which promotes a regular sleep cycle. Researchers suggest getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week through activities that also add a cognitive challenge such as dancing, cardiovascular exercises, or playing sports.  

Cognitive training 

Just as we exercise to keep our bodies sharp, we can exercise to keep our brains sharp. Brain exercises use structured cognitive activities to improve and maintain brain performance. We can keep our brains active by learning a new language, taking up a new hobby, such as quilting, or learning a new instrument. Jigsaw puzzles, card games, and even taking a new route to the grocery store or a friend’s house can stimulate the brain. However, the key to cognitive training is consistency. So, make sure to choose an activity you find interesting enough to do each day.   

Socialization

Social isolation and loneliness can have a profound impact on one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Social isolation can increase the risk of dementia by 50 percent. Research has shown that those who are socially isolated may experience greater cognitive decline, chronic illness, and depression. Instead of focusing on quantity, focus on quality. Spending time with a few close friends can be enough. Focus on building a close inner circle through activities like volunteering, joining a club, attending an exercise class, or even speaking with a loved one on the phone or through a video call. 

Tips for Brain Health 

Understanding how our brains are affected by our lifestyle is an important step in maintaining our cognitive skills. Here are a few practical tips that support brain health to implement into your everyday routine:

  • Get enough sleep. Sleep is essential for consolidating memories and improving cognitive functions. Sleep deprivation can lead to problems with memory and cognitive abilities. 
  • Manage stress. Stress raises the level of cortisol in our bodies that may impair thinking and memory. Making time for meditation, deep breathing, avoiding constant multi-tasking, and doing activities you truly enjoy can help manage stress daily. 
  • Don’t smoke and avoid alcohol. Smoking can decrease your brain’s efficiency while excessive alcohol can slow down communication between brain cells. 
  • Use it. Make sure to actively use your brain every day. Whether it’s reading, painting, or doing crossword puzzles, keeping your brain stimulated will keep it young. These activities help promote communication between nerve cells and can also stimulate the production of new cells.  

Staying Sharp at Maplewood Senior Living 

At Maplewood Senior Living, our communities offer a variety of ways to practice cognitive skills through new technology and social activities. Our communities support overall brain health through our comprehensive dining options, exercise classes, support groups, and robust activity schedule. To learn more about these offerings or to schedule a tour, please contact us 


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