What began as a couple of weeks of staying put has turned into most of us being home most of the time. When the only sure thing is uncertainty, taking control of what we can change can help us feel less powerless in situations like these.
If we choose to control something like our brain health, we may reap the rewards for years to come. By making small, easy tweaks to what is around you, who is around you, how you are thinking, how you MESH (move, eat, sleep, heal), and how you use technology, you can make sure your brain stays in tip-top shape.
What is around you?
1. Take a bath in a forest
Being stuck inside makes us all go a little stir crazy. Getting out into nature can help relieve these cooped up feelings. Forest Bathing (spending at least thirty minutes immersed in trees) significantly improves psychological and physical health. You don’t need to go far. A local park will do! Find the trees nearest you and fit them into your daily routine.
Mary Fulkerson, a self-advocate living with dementia, shares how nature has supported her during the pandemic. “I notice that when I go for walks, I listen to that wind blowing through the leaves of the trees, and the leaves are such a beautiful green and the blossoms and the little birds cheeping. And I think how could anyone put on those things [points to ears to indicate headphones] while they are walking because it is so beautiful out there. That has been good for me...There is a pleasure and a richness that you do not get otherwise, I never did before [living with dementia]...That’s major. I wish I could have that and then go back to the way things were because I would probably be more appreciative of the things people do and of everything, that’s big...Nature never stops, the rest of our lives have, but nature never stops.”
2. Open a window
Get a house plant and open the window. Increased carbon dioxide from an enclosed environment decreases how well our minds work. Fun bonus: even adding one houseplant can increase your wellbeing.
3. Reduce your carbon footprint
Our changing climate impacts our water, air, and food production. The healthiest brain possible needs the healthiest Earth possible. The reduction in air travel during the pandemic is helping. What other little shifts can you do to help your brain and planet be healthy? You can compost and recycle, reduce your use of plastics, use moderate air conditioning and heating, and so much more.
Who is around you?
4. Pick your pod
We are said to be the sum of the five people we spend the most time with. Being mindful of who you are spending time with is crucial to your brain health. Are you spending time with people who encourage healthy habits, make you feel good, and see the best in you? If not, change it up. Pick your pod wisely, virtual or physical, to optimize your brain health.
5. Stay connected
Physical distancing does not mean you cut off social ties. A connection can happen from 6 feet apart or through a screen. There are many benefits of socialization for seniors, so stay connected however you can during this time of physical distancing. There are so many online offerings now to find a group that interests you and can help you stay connected.
How are you thinking?
There are a ton of reasons for seniors to meditate. One reason to meditate is to keep your brain healthy. Meditating shows decreases in the volume of gray and white matter in the brain as we age. Meditation may “reduce the cognitive decline associated with normal aging.” At age fifty, the brains of meditators appear to be 7.5 years younger, and these benefits are compounded with time.
7. Don’t be ageist, especially toward yourself
Having positive views about aging adds 7.5 healthy years to our lives. It also reduces the risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s Disease. The next time you hear someone (or yourself) use the word young or old, try asking them, “What do you mean by ‘old’?” Uncover implicit negative beliefs about age to help keep our brains healthy.
How is your health?
One of the best ways I have found for tracking my health is to check in on how I am MESHing. MESH (move, eat, sleep, heal) is an acronym created by Dr. Bill Thomas to help us all stay healthy, and when we are healthier, so is our brain.
8. Move your body
Notice this does not say exercise. Merely moving our body is crucial to our brain health. Move your body however you like. Dance, swim, jump rope, golf, do your thing. Depending on your age and chronic condition status, the amount you need to move to keep your brain healthy will vary. Read the latest research and consult your doctor to make a plan. The healthier our cardiovascular system, the better we can get blood and oxygen to our brains and the healthier they will be.
9. Eat a variety of food, not too much, mostly plants.
Eat a lot of different foods. Don't overeat. Focus on plants. Help keep your heart healthy. Keeping our blood vessels clear of build-up and blood pressure in check keeps oxygen flowing to our brains, keeping them healthy.
10. Maintain your sleep hygiene
Sleep is crucial to brain health. Sleep hygiene refers to ensuring we have good practices when it comes to our routines before we go to bed and how we sleep. Avoid stimulants before bed such as caffeine and screens. Make sure to only use your bed for sleep so your body knows it is time to sleep when you get in at night. Finally, eat well and exercise during the day so you are tuckered and satisfied at night.
Dr. Bill Thomas is clear that healing is not a way of going back to the way things were. Instead, it is a way of going forward and finding a new normal. Focus on taking care of your body and brain and moving forward to your new normal. Our brains will change throughout our life. It is essential to do what is best for us today and not compare ourselves to earlier models.
Technology? It is Complicated
12. Use technology intelligently
Technology can affect brain health for good or for ill. Using technology in the wrong ways can lead to reduced attention, impaired social and emotional intelligence, poor sleep, addiction, isolation, and more. The flip side is using technology correctly. Doing this can help us keep our brains healthy and engaged. It is super important during the pandemic to be mindful of how you use technology. Focus on using it to bridge social connections and develop new skills.
Keeping our brains healthy is more important than ever. Now, we are all under increased stress with the pandemic. You don’t need to spend a lot of money or do anything fancy. These 12 easy ideas can help you keep your brain in tip-top shape at any age and cognitive ability.