Senior moments. We’ve all had them.
Typically, these ‘slips of the mind’ are associated with getting older but research shows people often experience those same slight memory lapses in their 20s but do not give it a second thought. As we become older though, many of us become anxious about forgetfulness because of its association with dementia, in particular Alzheimer’s Disease.
While it is true that as we age, our bodily systems, including the brain, gradually deteriorate. However, despite the stereotypes, cognitive decline is not inevitable. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits can significantly reduce the risk for dementia later on in life. Below, we outline a few strategies to maintain a healthy brain at any age.
1. Stimulate your brain. Multiple studies have shown that brain plasticity continues to be present throughout the aging process, causing researchers to hypothesize that cognitively stimulating activities could help maintain cognitive function or delay cognitive decline. According to the experts, the type of activity is key. Despite the popular belief, doing sudokus and crossword puzzles will likely have limited impact on creating new neuropathways. Instead, learn a new skill, such as a foreign language, to truly exercise your neurons.
2. Be social and connect meaningfully. According to the CDC, social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, rivalling risks of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Moreover, studies show social isolation can result in a 50% percent increased risk of dementia. Loneliness also correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Experts are also quick to note that social isolation does not mean being alone. Many people may be experiencing loneliness while living with family members, roommates or at work. It is important to cultivate meaningful relationships at any age, and if you have a senior in your family, take steps to stimulate socialization for them. Often, assisted and senior living communities can provide a much richer social life throughout the day than a home environment while family members are juggling busy careers, children and other responsibilities.
3. Nourish your brain. Clean eating for a healthy body is not a new concept, but while we often associate healthy eating habits with heart health, we rarely consider how our dietary habits affect our brains. In his research, Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, associate professor of neurology at Columbia University, found that the more closely adults followed a Mediterranean diet—having fish and plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and olive oil, while limiting red meat—the more their risk for Alzheimer’s disease decreased, with the strictest followers cutting their risk by 40%! Don’t forget to hydrate. We often confuse thirst for hunger. As our brain is made primarily out of water, even minimal dehydration can affect our memory, processing speed, and analytical thinking.
4. Move. Similar to nutrition, people don’t usually associate exercise with brain health, only heart health and overall physical health. Many studies show that physical activity is very helpful in maintaining cognitive abilities and can increase, repair and maintain brain cells. Daily exercise is important, but with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, consider getting up and moving throughout your day.
5. Sleep and Reduce Stress. “Sleeping well is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve your brain functions, as well as your ability to learn and remember new knowledge,” writes Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his recent book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at any Age. Sleep appears to clear the brain of ‘debris’ - memories are consolidated and brain cells are nourished, which helps promote key important brain functions. When we don’t get enough sleep we’re not as quick as we could be, and maybe not as happy. While it is unrealistic to completely eliminate stress, we can reduce and manage it. One way to do it is through physical activity.
Don’t know where to start? Take a brisk walk with a friend and talk about your hopes, problems, interests. You’ll hit the brain trifecta: moving, socializing, and releasing stress. And, while the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be, these strategies can have a meaningful impact on your cognition at any age.