Tips for preserving brain health

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For those who would like to maintain their brain health and mental faculties in their senior years, there are some simple things that are proven to work. Recent research reaffirms that the things you thought were good for your brain health, actually are. Getting enough sleep and exercise, and a healthy diet are among the most important habits for keeping your noggin in top form. Although most people are familiar with these habits, surveys show relatively few senior adults actually practice all of them.

A recent AARP survey on brain health found that 98 percent of adults over age 40 felt that maintaining brain health was very important or somewhat important. Furthermore, over 90 percent of respondents recognized the importance to cognitive health of getting enough sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet, stress management, and mental stimulation through activities such as reading.

But slightly over half of people were engaging in each of these beneficial activities. Just 56 percent of adults said they followed a healthy diet or a regular exercise regimen. Sixty-four percent said they found time to read, but only 59 percent said they got sufficient sleep. And only 43 percent said they were able to manage stress effectively, even though 96 percent felt this was important to maintaining brain health. Nearly 4 in 10 respondents also said they had noticed a decrease in their ability to remember things over the past five years.

African American and Latino adults place more importance on brain health than the general population, according to the survey. But African Americans are less likely to engage in brain-healthy activities such as regular exercise and following a healthy diet.

A report issued in April 2015 by the Institute of Medicine and cosponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and AARP among others, identified what has and has not been shown to work for maintaining brain health and cognitive function into old age.

The report affirms what we previously knew about the mind-body connection. A healthful diet and physical exercise are directly linked to future brain health. Although no specific diet has been shown to be optimal, the report encourages regular intake of nuts and beans, grains, vegetables, and olive oil. It suggests consuming less meat and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption (more than two drinks per day). Additionally, aerobic exercise is very beneficial to brain health, especially when combined with strength training, according to the report.

Conditions associated with poor overall health, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar are also associated with poor brain health. Lowering blood pressure with medications seems to help avoid brain problems, but it’s unclear whether lowering cholesterol with prescription drugs does the same.

Regular mental stimulation is important to preserving and improving brain functioning. This can include reading, writing, and learning a foreign language or a new skill. It can also include social activities such as volunteering, playing cards, attending religious services, and just socializing with friends. There is also evidence that dancing can improve brain function.

Finally, poor sleep quality is linked to development of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. Getting enough sleep now and taking care of conditions like sleep apnea that interfere with proper sleep can prove beneficial for brain health later in life.

The report indicated that most dietary supplements haven’t been shown to improve or preserve cognitive functioning. These include vitamins E, B6, and B12, and ginkgo biloba. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked to poor brain health, but taking vitamin D supplements has not been shown to improve brain function.

Various mental and physical conditions have been strongly linked to dementia and mental decline. Depression, and hearing and vision loss are among these conditions. Common medications including antihistamines such as Benadryl and some antidepressants, and medications like Xanax and Valium have been linked to delirium, cognitive impairment and dementia.

Long-term stress is also connected with decline in brain health and memory problems. Meditation and mindfulness may help manage stress levels.

In order to keep your mind healthy, says Rita Altman, R.N., M.S.N., C.V.N., “stay engaged in life. Body, mind, and spirit should be taken care of as a whole to slow the progression of dementia. Staying socially and mentally active are key. And, maintain proper nutrition!”

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