If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. This isn’t just an old wives’ tale; it is sound advice for all of us to remember as we age. Both your physical and cognitive functioning abilities can slide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 16 million Americans are living with some form of cognitive impairment.
The number of people ages 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s is expected to swell from the current 5.8 million to 13.8 million by 2050. Fortunately, a growing body of new research holds promise to improve and protect brain health and possibly stave off dementia and cognitive decline.
Implementing the strategies found in these studies can help you learn how to boost your brain health and aid in the fight of curbing dementia. Here are recommendations to improve brain health:
1. Sleep Tight
Although experts have yet to concretely connect the dots explaining why sleep problems are associated with early indications of Alzheimer’s, numerous studies conducted over the past few decades link sleep disturbances to poor brain health.
One such study from Boston University Medical Center linked obstructive sleep apnea, the sleep condition that causes brief periods of partial or complete stoppage of breathing, with higher rates of cognitive impairment. A key to preventing brain decline is asking your sleep partner if he or she has noticed you snoring or stopping breathing while sleeping. Discuss any daytime sleepiness with your physician and ask if you should be screened for sleep apnea. Here are some further ideas:
- Establish a pattern for sleeping. Go to bed and wake up in the morning around the same times.
- Keep your bedroom cool and dark. Use an automatic thermostat to lower the temperature overnight and/or use lighter weight blankets. Replace your bedroom’s curtains with black out blinds on the windows.
- Avoid heavy eating and/or drinking prior to bedtime. If you are hungry, reach for a small snack instead.
2. Step Up
Walking is great for your waistline, but a study from New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) found it can give your brain health a big boost, too. Your foot’s impact hitting the ground produces pressure waves in your body that significantly increase blood flow to your brain, which help to prevent dementia. Along with an overall sense of well-being, those surges of blood help maintain health and cognitive function.
Don’t pressure yourself to jog or trot. The researchers found that even though your foot’s impact with the ground is lighter when you walk than when you run, walking still produces large pressure waves in the body that significantly increase blood flow to the brain. As there’s no contact between your foot and the ground when riding a bike, cycling has no effect on beneficial pressure waves in the brain. Here are some more ideas:
- Take the stairs rather than the elevator. If you’re only going up one or two floors in a building, climb the stairs for some quick cardio.
- Go the extra mile. Drop your bags in the car after shopping and walk an extra lap (or two) around the mall.
- Join a walking club. Form one of your own with family or friends for good exercise and socialization.
3. Go Nuts
Although a healthy and balanced diet is known to promote brain health, researchers have yet to pinpoint the connection between what you eat and dementia prevention, but some progress has been made. A study by the University of Illinois says that monounsaturated fatty acids, which are nutrients found in olive oils, nuts and avocados, may hold the key to having a healthy brain.
Foods rich in monounsaturated fatty acids are key components of the Mediterranean diet, which is also linked to protecting long-term brain health. Eating foods rich in these acids is believed to contribute to optimal functioning of the networking in your brain responsible for preserving cognition. Here are some further ideas for a brain-boosting diet:
- Focus on fresh foods. Fill your grocery shopping basket with vegetables, fruit, and seafood (all components of the Mediterranean diet).
- Avoid additives. This includes processed meats, added sugars, and trans fats.
- Try something new. Replace your conventional vegetable salad with a crunchy nut salad.
4. Find Your Zen
25 minutes a day of Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can significantly improve brain function and energy levels, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.
This type of yoga and mindfulness focuses the brain’s processing power on a select number of things like your breathing or a yoga pose. These exercises improve focus and concentration in everyday life. Here are some further ideas to incorporate more peacefulness into your life:
- Keep a journal. Write down your good thoughts or experiences. Writing can be an excellent means of coping through difficult times and, by reading what you’ve written again later, can provide you a good reminder of your accomplishments.
- Take time for breakfast. Do you toss back just a cup of coffee before going to work? Eating a more balanced breakfast (and sitting down when doing so) can be far better for you and give you more energy.
- Drive the long way home. If you’ve had a challenging day at work, try not to bring that frustration home with you. Explore a new route, stop at your local bookstore, or go for a quick walk in the park to release anger and lower your risk of venting at your unknowing family.
5. Get Plenty of Vitamin C
Vitamin C can do more than fight a nasty cold; it is thought to have a significant impact on cognition, according to two other research studies. Vitamin C, found in orange juice, broccoli, brussels sprouts, bell peppers, and kiwi, is thought to lower oxidative stress. Lowering oxidative stress means that free radicals are more powerful than the body’s ability to fight them, which can cause a decline in brain health and overall well-being. Here are some more ideas for incorporating vitamins into your diet:
- Shop smart. Not sure which fruits and vegetables to choose at your local grocery store or farmer’s market? The brightest-colored ones contain the highest levels of Vitamin C.
- Cook smart. Steaming and/or microwaving vegetables in water will help retain the most Vitamin C.
- Take a Vitamin C supplement. Vitamin C can be found in your local drug or health food store (often in chewable tablet form). While these supplements can help, try not to rely on these as a complete substitute for fresh fruits or vegetables.
6. Be Heart Smart
An advisory from the American Heart Association (AHA) says the same risk factors that cause heart disease are also major contributors to late-life cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. The connection is believed to be adequate blood flow, which both the heart and brain need to function properly.
As you age, blood vessels can slowly become narrow, preventing optimum blood flow throughout your body. This form of heart disease is one of the leading causes of heart attacks and strokes, and also causes damage to blood vessels leading in and out of the brain, which threatens brain health.
Most risk factors for narrowing of the arteries, called atherosclerosis, can be lessened with a heart-healthy diet, daily physical activity, avoiding tobacco products, and monitoring/controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Here are other ideas for maintaining good heart health:
- Move. Your heart, body, and mood will all benefit from regular physical movement. Avoid sitting for too long … take regular breaks to stand up, stretch, and/or walk around.
- Adopt a pet. A happy cat sitting on your lap and purring can be very calming. A dog will willingly accompany you on walks, provide company, and become very devoted to you.
- Manage your stress. You may not be able to eliminate stress from your life completely, but you can find ways to better manage it. Don’t become the strong, silent type… talk about your worries and/or concerns with others.
7. Manage your Blood Sugar
High blood sugar has been shown to be connected to lower brain functioning in several studies, including one from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. This could be one explanation for the increased risk of Alzheimer’s in those living with Type 2 diabetes. The study showed that just a one percent increase in the two- to three-month blood glucose average is associated with a lower brain health score on a series of cognitive function and memory tests.
Control portion sizes at meals: When serving food, think of light bulbs, tennis balls, and computer mice. These objects represent the proper size food portions from Canada’s Health Guide. You can also try serving your meals on smaller plates. If you use larger plates, you may be tempted to fill them and overeat. Try these ideas:
- Hydrate. There is plenty of truth in this common advice! Water will be your best choice to reduce your body’s chance of dehydration. Drinking water will also flush out toxins and remove blood sugars from your kidney.
- Eat heavily early and lighter later. Bigger meals should be eaten for breakfast and/or lunch, rather than dinner. Human bodies become more insulin resistant later in the day and larger meals take longer to digest as well.
- Keep an eye out for symptoms. Your body will warn you when your blood sugars are low. Pay attention to increased headaches, tiredness, blurred vision, and/or trips to the bathroom to urinate. Take these symptoms seriously and see your doctor immediately.
8. Watch Your Body’s Other Vital Signs
Blood sugars aren’t the only things to monitor. Keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These can both be controlled with regular exercise, limited alcohol intake, reduced stress, and a proper diet. Blood pressure and high cholesterol can also be managed with medication. Two of the most effective blood pressure medication types are diuretics (e.g. chlorthalidone, torsemide, and/or amiloride), and beta-blockers (e.g.. Acebutolol (Sectral), Atenolol (Tenormin), and/or Betaxolol (Kerlone). For lower cholesterol, doctors often recommend and prescribe statins (e.g, Atorvastatin (Lipitor), Fluvastatin (Lescol), and/or Lovastatin). Here are a few ideas:
- Know what you’re looking for. The six classic human vital signs are blood pressure, pulse, temperature, respiration, height, and weight.
- Test your vitals regularly. A simple blood work sample can test for potential problems. If your doctor doesn’t provide you with a bloodwork requisition request, ask for one.
- Talk with your doctor. With a variety of medications available to help, please check with your doctor. He/she can better advise which medication will be right for you.
9. Get Moving
Regular exercise does a body, mind, and spirit good. Here are some more ideas:
- Vary your routine. Understand that not all exercise is equal. For example, any exercise may help prevent dementia; however, aerobic exercise (swimming, walking, running, biking, etc.) may increase gray matter in the brain and trigger other beneficial changes. Varied exercise also doesn’t become boring exercise.
- Choose less strenuous activities. Doing something can be better than doing nothing; however, doing too much can become risky for seniors. Walking and swimming are both excellent exercises and much gentler on older joints and muscles. Start a new exercise regimen slowly.
- Remember exercise’s double-duty. While regular exercise improves body health, it also reduces the chance of falling. Stronger muscles and increased flexibility will allow the senior to stand, balance, and walk more securely.
10. Break up with your Coffee Cup
Filling your morning mug with tea instead of coffee can lessen the risk of cognitive impairment, according to a study from the National University of Singapore. The researchers found a cup of tea a day lowers the risk of cognitive decline by 50 percent. Carriers of the APOE e4 gene, a genetic biomarker that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, may experience a reduction in cognitive impairment risk by as much as 86 percent. Try these ideas:
- Caffeine comes in both drinks and foods. Is your loved one eating too much chocolate, ice cream, and/or pudding? All these foods contain additional caffeine.
- Substitute juice. Three of the best juices for seniors are prune, apple, and pear. These are vitamin and nutrient-rich, plus help reduce constipation.
- Check your pain medications. Over-the-counter pain medications (e.g. menstrual and headache remedies) may contain caffeine. In this case, ask the pharmacist about other caffeine-reduced or caffeine-free brands.
10 Highly-Recommended Cognitive Activities to Boost Brain Health
Beyond the previous recommendations to increase mental health, there are many other proven ideas to help. These include the following:
- Read a book. Find a quiet spot, crack open a book, and learn from or travel with the author. Revisit some of your favorite books from your own library or try something new. If you are experimenting with different authors, borrow titles from your local public library. To keep your costs down, you could also purchase books from a second-hand bookstore.
- Register in a class. Computers? Creative writing? Cooking? What interests and/or hobbies do you have? Your local school may offer continuing education classes. These can be varied and cost-effective. Why not register for a class to learn more about something you like to do or explore new activities?
- Tackle a crossword puzzle. Crossword puzzles can get the mental wheels rolling. Your local newspaper might publish a crossword puzzle for its readers. If not, visit your bookstore to find a good assortment of “puzzling” books for different levels of players (easy, intermediate, and most difficult). Word search puzzles can also improve cognitive abilities.
- Play board games. Challenge someone you know to a game of chess (and challenge your brain to strategize). Help your children improve their money counting and math skills by playing Monopoly. Learn how to be cooperative through a game of Pandemic. There are many other board games that can be great fun to play and great exercise for the brain.
- Associate with good people. Negativity often breeds negativity. Therefore, you can work wonders for your mental health by connecting with more positive individuals (e.g. those who are friendly, cheerful, supportive and/or who share your same beliefs and values)
- Play memory games. Playing different cognitive games can have a crucial impact on brain health. It may be easy enough for your loved one to list the planets in consecutive order away from the sun. To increase the challenge, ask for them to list the planets in alphabetical order instead. The “picnic game” can also be fun. Here, a family caregiver can start by saying, “My grandmother went on a picnic and took ______ (choose something starting with the letter “A”). They will then repeat that, offer something starting with the letter “B,” so the game will continue through the alphabet (or as far as possible until a player forgets). For additional difficulty, picnic items could be paired with a descriptive adjective also beginning with the same letter (e.g., “appetizing apples,” “buttered bread,” etc.).
- Participate in Conversation. Thought-provoking discussion requiring comprehension and a detailed response can also help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. A family caregiver could compile a shortlist of possible topics like current news, the loved one’s childhood ambitions, or parenting tips to talk about during a physical or virtual visit. It’s better to ask open-ended and conversation-starting questions. For example, “Who was your favorite school teacher and why?” will require more thought to answer than “Did you like your school teachers?”
- Stay positive. Difficult times can pull anybody down, and depression may lead to reduced brain function. Small things like watching children play, sipping a cup of tea, listening to nostalgic music, or sitting outside in the warm sun may boost a loved one’s mood and cognitive health. Laughing more can also help positivity. Research shows laughter can reduce cortisol – a stress-increasing hormone, and it just feels good to do. Considering the challenges of COVID-19, family caregivers could place a small joke book into a care package for delivery to a loved one in long-term care. Alternatively, family caregivers could read funny stories to their family member via Zoom or by telephone.
- Memorize Song Lyrics. We all have significant songs from our glorious youth. Family caregivers could choose a song and print off the lyrics to read through. Memorizing lyrics can be a fun way for them to work their brains while connecting with their past. Once your loved one masters the song lyrics, try a poem, a list, or even a short story.
- Garden. Dig out the gardening gloves and the trowel! There are many health benefits of gardening for seniors. It can be a great outdoor activity to get your loved one physically active. Gardening allows them to get fresh air, lightly exercise (bending over, digging soil, carrying a water jug), and use their imagination to grow beautiful arrangements. The garden doesn’t have to be large — you can section off a small corner of the backyard or pour soil into a decorative box to place on a patio/balcony. A smaller garden will certainly make things easier for any older adult — as will a small stool to sit on if a senior is unable to bend over.
How Caregivers Can Promote Brain Health for Seniors
Family caregivers can play a crucial role in recognizing a senior’s cognitive abilities and keeping those abilities sharp as they often spend the most time together. If something doesn’t seem quite right, the family caregiver will be one of the closest to the senior and can often be the first to spot the problem and alert healthcare staff. However, as a warning, seniors may try to hide their cognitive decline, and family caregivers may need to become detectives. I recall noticing my father’s increasing forgetfulness quite early. At first, I classified this as “senior moments,” but it turned out to be Alzheimer’s disease.
To be of the best help, family caregivers need to have the problem diagnosed early to find an effective treatment better and increase the senior’s quality of life. As explained, a family caregiver may intervene in various ways, but for best results, they must take action as soon as possible to slow down a senior’s cognitive decline. Additionally, family caregivers can support their loved one through this time by educating themselves on what to expect, regularly monitoring and/or assessing their loved one’s progress, and creating a positive environment for them.