Dear Savvy Senior
Are there any proven strategies to preventing cognitive decline? I have a family history of dementia and worry about my own memory and cognitive abilities as I grow older. What can you tell me?
For most people, starting in their fifties and sixties, the brain’s ability to remember names, multi-task or learn something new starts declining. While our genes (which we can’t control) play a key role in determining our cognitive aging, our general health (which we do have some control over) plays a big factor too.
Here are some healthy lifestyle strategies – recommended by medical experts – that you can employ that can help stave off cognitive loss and maybe even build a stronger brain.
Manage health problems: Studies have shown that cognitive problems are related to health conditions, like diabetes, heart disease and even depression. So, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes you need to treat them with lifestyle changes and medication (if necessary) and get them under control. And if you have a history of depression, you need to talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Exercise: Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, to keep the brain cells well nourished. So, choose an aerobic activity you enjoy like walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, etc., that elevates your heart rate and do it for at least 30 to 40 minutes three times a week.
Eat healthy: A heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, will also help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats. Also keep processed foods and sweets to a minimum.
Get some sleep: Quality, restful sleep contributes to brain health too. Typically, adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep daily. If you have persistent problems sleeping, you need to identify and address the problem. Medications, late-night exercise and alcohol can interfere with sleep quality and length, as can arthritis pain, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
If you need help, make an appointment with a sleep specialist who will probably recommend an overnight diagnostic sleep test.
Challenge your mind: Some research suggests that mind challenging activities can help improve memory, and slow age-related mental decline. But, be aware that these activities consist of things you aren’t accustomed to doing. In other words, crossword puzzles aren’t enough to challenge your brain, if you’re already a regular puzzle doer. Instead, you need to pick up a new skill like learning to dance, play a musical instrument, study a new language or do math problems – something that’s challenging and a little outside your comfort zone.
Brain-training websites like Lumosity.com and BrainHQ.com are good mind exercising tools because they continually adapt to your skill level to keep you challenged.
Socializing and interacting with other people is another important way to stimulate the brain. So make a point to reach out and stay connected to friends, family and neighbors. Join a club, take a class or even volunteer – anything that enhances your social life.
Don’t smoke or drink excessively: Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption both effect the brain in a negative way, so kick the habit if you smoke and, if you drink, do so only in moderation.
Reduce stress: Some stress is good for the brain, but too much can be toxic. There’s growing evidence that things like mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi are all good ways to help reduce stress.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or go to SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.