Commentary: How to help protect your brain from aging | Chanhassen Opinion


Where are my keys? Where did I put my reading glasses? Why did I walk into this room?

Do any of these questions sound familiar to you? If so, you’re not alone. As we get older, we can worry that our brain isn’t working right. However, there is a difference between forgetfulness and cognitive decline.

Here’s the good news. Cognitive decline is not inevitable as we age. In fact, some older adults perform as well cognitively, if not better, than younger adults. We’ve all heard the expression, “Use it or lose it.” That applies to not only our physical condition, but also our cognitive condition.

What research found is it’s the idea of challenging yourself physically and mentally that improves the brain’s ability to function better. Lifestyle modifications can also significantly reduce our risk of cognitive decline. In fact, according to the CDC, up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed.

Growing older affects all aspects of ourselves. The Institute of Medicine says that, like all other organs, our brains change both their physical structure and the ability to carry out various functions. The functions of the brain include memory, decision-making, wisdom, learning, and the speed at which we are able to process things. Keeping our brains healthy is an important part of growing older.

Here are some things we can do to help keep our brains as healthy as possible as we age.

Be brain active. Continually look for opportunities to learn something new. Challenge your brain. The Journal of Neurology recently released a study finding that people in middle and old age who engaged in crafting or artistic hobbies, such as painting, drawing, woodworking, or quilting were up to 73% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as they aged. That’s why experts on aging recommend doing things that stimulate the brain such as crossword puzzles and brain games. Also, learning something new like a different language or musical instrument can be very beneficial.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Factors that can be managed to improve cognitive health include: quit smoking, stop excessive drinking, lower your cholesterol, particularly LDL, and lower high blood pressure.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking all negatively affect an aging brain. By ensuring you are keeping your heart at its healthiest, your brain has a much higher chance of getting the blood and oxygen it needs.

Having a well-balanced diet will help your body and brain to stay healthy. Since the brain is composed of 60% fat, it’s important to make sure we also consume fats, but not just any fats. Dieticians often recommend consuming healthy fats, such as avocados, salmon, olive and coconut oils.

Research by the Mayo Clinic in 2013, showed that patients with sleeping problems were up to five times more likely to have a form of dementia as they aged. Getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep is an important way to ensure your brain gets the rest it needs and can be at its best.

Also, get regular checkups. Consult with your healthcare provider about the possible effects on your brain of medications and supplements. The Annals of Internal Medicine published a study in 2013 that found that middle-aged adults were far less likely to develop dementia when they reached age 65 by being in good physical shape and exercising regularly as they aged.

Be socially active. Here’s a surprising finding — social isolation is associated with approximately a 50% increase in dementia. Imposed social isolation can certainly contribute to decreased mental and cognitive health. Having an active social life enables us to keep our brains healthy. This is because we are exercising our brain as we follow along and contribute to conversations taking place. It also challenges our brains to remember names and details about the people we meet.

Cognitive aging is not a disease. It’s a natural process that occurs in every individual continuously throughout life. Aging affects the ability to perform daily activities and is often the reason an older person can no longer live independently, even though they’re still physically able. By taking actions early on, we increase the ability to preserve our cognitive function and keep our brains healthy as we age.

What about you? What are you doing to keep your brain active and healthy? Debbie Hampton says, “Take care of your mind, your body will thank you. Take care of your body, your mind will thank you.” We’ll also heed the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Now we better go find our car keys.


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