It’s Your Move - Strategies for Staying Mentally Active

Some people believe memory loss and cognitive decline are inevitable as you get older. Don’t believe it. Research and medical experience indicate that aging alone is not a cause of cognitive decline. Many age-linked cognitive problems are lifestyle related, such as stress, health habits, motivation, and social connections. Although we experience neurological changes as we age, it is possible to keep your brain in shape and reduce the impact lifestyle has on mental ability.

How the Brain Ages

“When significant memory loss or cognitive ability occurs it is usually a result of a disease, neurological disorder, or brain injury, not normal age-related changes in the brain,” says Dr. Masoumeh Kiamanesh, Optima Health gerontologist. “Certain thought processes become less efficient as we age and others typically remain stable. In many cases the negative impact of these changes can be reduced or prevented through some basic good health habits.”

In normal aging, intelligence, knowledge, experience, and reasoning typically remain stable. Attention and long term memory are also generally preserved. Although capabilities vary widely among individuals, information processing tends to be less efficient, as does short term memory recall. This may mean it takes longer for some older adults to develop new skills, but they are still extremely capable of learning. Possible reasons for mental slowdowns could be medications, depression or anxiety, sensory changes like hearing loss, or other health factors. By taking steps to preserve your health and following the old adage—use it or lose it—you can help keep your brain working at its best.

There are four main strategies you can start at any age to maintain or improve mental agility—stay physically active, stimulate your brain, eat a healthy diet, and manage your medical conditions.

Your Brain on Exercise - Just say Yes

Whether you are generally healthy or coping with a disability or injury, regular exercise will help you stay physically and mentally fit. Exercise gets the heart pumping and circulation going, which increases blood flow, carrying more nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Numerous studies link exercise, even brief 20-30 minute sessions, to improved memory, reasoning abilities, reaction time and reduced risk for dementia.

Many adults who take up exercise later in life report feeling better than ever and frequently show greater physical and mental improvements than younger counterparts.

The keys to success are:

  • Make it safe: Check with your physician if you have an ongoing health condition or have concerns about certain activities. Moderate physical activity, such as walking or lifting of light weights, are safe and effective for most older adults. Start slowly and gradually build up as you can. “Your physician or health care coordinator may also have recommendations for physical therapy or classes that can help older adults start an exercise program or increase physical activity,” says Dr. Kiamanesh.
  • Do something you enjoy: whether it’s gardening, taking a class, walking in the park, dancing, fishing, or some other activity. Invite a friend. People who exercise with a partner are more likely to stay motivated.
  • Make it a priority: If you can maintain regular exercise for six months, it will likely become a habit. Seize opportunities to be more active during your daily routine, such as taking stairs, using your hands, taking advantage of downtime to stretch or do light exercises.

To learn more, read Tips for Staying Physically Active as You get Older

Use It or Lose It - Exercise Your Brain

Your brain is like the rest of your body—if you don't give it regular workouts, its capabilities decline. People who stay mentally active, use more of their senses, and continue learning perform far better in tests that measure memory and thinking.

Experts believe challenging your brain helps maintain individual brain cells and stimulates communication among them. The more senses you use, the more areas of your brain engage and the more benefits you receive. Older adults who perform tasks using multiple senses have better recall and possibly learn more efficiently.

The keys to being a lifelong learner include:

  • Maintain your social life: Engaging in stimulating conversations is another excellent way to maintain mental skills and memory. Social relationships also reduce stress which can lead to depression and other damaging effects on mental health. Volunteer in your community. Stay connected with family members, friends, relatives, or some organized group.
  • Believe in yourself: Keep a positive attitude. The challenge for many older adults is overcoming myths and common stereotypes. Older learners do worse on memory tasks when they’re exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory. A 2013 study at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology found that seniors who associated themselves with aging stereotypes performed 20 percent worse on memory tests than those who weren't exposed to the stereotypes.
  • Stay curious and challenge yourself: Try variations on what you know or learn a new skill, such as a language or a musical instrument. Start a new hobby, such as photography or cooking. Attend lectures and art events. Take a course on a subject that interests you. Play games and do puzzles that challenge the intellect and memory, such as chess, cards, Scrabble, and crossword puzzles. Read or listen to audio books. Write to your friends. Find something you enjoy that stretches your comfort zone.
  • Practice using your memory: Use memory triggers to help you make connections among items or activities. For example, mentally attach a landmark or activity to a new route. Memorize lists and reminders by visualizing yourself doing the activity. Memorize lyrics or music by singing or playing along.
  • Use your hands: Throwing a ball, sewing, sign language or using your non-dominant hand improves eye-hand coordination and engages multiple areas of the brain.

Feed Your Brain—What’s Good for Your Heart is Good for Your Head

Good nutrition is important at any age to keep your brain working at its best. People who avoid saturated fats and eat a balanced, low fat, low cholesterol diet are believed to reduce risk for cognitive decline. A balanced diet with the ideal combination of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants are believed to help cognitive function as we age by protecting the brain from oxidative stress, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease which effects blood flow.

“Evidence indicates healthy eating habits, such as the Mediterranean diet, increase cognitive and cardiovascular health and overall longevity,” says Dr. Kiamanesh. “Numerous studies have associated the Mediterranean diet with reducing the risks of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative disorders.”

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fiber, heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and important nutrients. Some general eating guidelines for brain health include:

  • Eat a variety of multicolored fresh vegetables and fruits.
  • Stick to minimally processed or whole grains.
  • Try olive or canola oil in place of butter or margarine.
  • Nuts and seeds are good sources of fiber, protein and healthy fats.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Avoid frying.
  • Limit red meat to no more than a few times a month. Keep portions small and lean. Avoid high-fat, processed meats.
  • Choose low-fat dairy.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water.

Learn more about healthy eating: Tips for Older Adults on Eating Healthy

Manage Your Health and Medical Conditions

Many medical conditions that affect brain function can be managed effectively. Some of the most important include:

  • Control cholesterol problems and high blood pressure.
  • Don't smoke
  • Limit alcohol
  • Reduce stress
  • Visit your doctor and care providers regularly.
  • Manage your medications. Learn more: 5 Tips for Managing Medications.

It’s never too late to start. No matter how old you are, caring for your body will help you stay active, sharpen your memory, boost your immune system, and increase your energy. It’s your move.

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