Your brain may change with age but don’t think mental decline has to seep in as you get older. New research suggests there are plenty of ways to keep your brain sharp and alert.
“The evidence is getting stronger that there are things we can do to potentially lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Previously, before this evidence came to light, people…said it’s luck of the draw if they’ll get this disease and there was a real sense of helplessness and lack and control,” Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said.
These habits are also helpful for people already living with dementia in staving off the deterioration of their brain health, Schulz said.
For National Brain Awareness Month, Schulz named five lifestyle changes you can make now to improve your brain’s health and fight off illness:
Learn a new language, take up chess or even take piano lessons. Stimulating your brain helps to reinvigorate it, Schulz said.
“It’s something new and it wakes up your brain, giving it a jolt and startling it. You’re also teaching it to adapt, and be flexible as you have messages fired around in your brain in a way it doesn’t normally,” she explained.
Research backs up Schulz’ claim, too: Speaking a second language could delay the onset of three types of dementias — vascular, frontotemporal and mixed dementia, according to one study. It found that people who were bilingual developed dementia 4.5 years later than people who could only speaking one language.
Make sure you choose a hobby that you’re interested in when setting a challenge. If you hate Sudoku, don’t commit to completing one every day.
Be socially active
Engaging with your family, friends and community is key to keeping your brain happy. This could be through conversations with your grandkids, joining a local book club or even going to the movies with your friends, Schulz said.
One study suggested that leisurely activities that rolled physical, mental and social stimulation together helped the most to prevent dementia.
“There is new evidence that suggests as we are exposed to new ideas and conversations, different pathways in our brain are created and that’s neurons talking to each other, which we want,” Schulz said.
Maintaining relationships is especially crucial in keeping your mental health intact. Schulz said there’s debate around whether depression causes dementia or if it surfaces as dementia sets in. Either way, the two go hand-in-hand leaving dementia patients in isolation.
One study warned that loneliness is as bad for aging seniors as poor physical health. It can increase a person’s risk of premature death by 14 per cent.
Follow a healthy diet
A healthy diet helps with keeping your weight in check and your heart healthy, but what you eat also feeds your brain.
“The brain directs our heart and all of our organs to do the jobs they’re meant to do and what we’re learning is there are specific foods that are particularly good for brain health,” Schulz said.
So what should you be eating? Look for colour when putting together your meals because those are the ingredients that’ll be packed with anti-oxidants and other nutrients to nourish your brain.
Blue and purple fruits and vegetables — blackberries, blueberries, purple cabbage and plums — are a good start. While green, from broccoli, avocados, spinach, and pears, help, too.
Reds, from beets, raspberries, red grapes, tomatoes and red peppers, also make good choices, Schulz said.
Fish is packed with omega-3s, so reach for tuna, salmon and herring to feed your brain.
Stay physically active
You don’t need to run marathons to keep dementia at bay, but doing some form of physical activity goes a long way in keeping your brain young.
Exercise gets your heart rate up, which increases blood flow to the brain, nourishing cells with nutrients and oxygen. It also encourages the development of new cells, all factors in reducing your risk of stroke, Schulz said.
Gym memberships need not apply — walk to the grocery store instead of driving, take the stairs instead of the escalator and get off of the bus two stops ahead on your way home.
Your brain is just like your heart. They’re both muscles that need to be given a workout to stay healthy.
Limit your stress levels
There’s a reason why colouring books and puzzles are making a comeback for adults. These activities are great for destressing and research suggests they’re exactly what busy bodies need to unwind and give their minds a break.
Stress disrupts mood regulation, disrupts our sleep, elevates blood pressure, increases stress hormones like cortisol and increases depression. Too much stress could lead to chemical imbalances that damage the brain and other cells in the body.
Even exercises like meditation help in easing stress.