Maintaining a Healthy Brain
Throughout your life, your brain’s job is to help you make sense of the world and help oversee your daily operations. Brain health refers to the ability to remember, learn, plan, concentrate, and maintain a clear, active mind. Brain health is all about making the most of your brain and helping reduce some risks to it as you age.
Our brains are always changing throughout our lives. Scientists refer to this as brain plasticity. As we age, our experiences and knowledge keep our minds working, developing, and learning. Seniors may experience noticeable changes, but not all changes are a sign of concern. When we experience the world, practice habits, and learn new information, our brains change, grow new connections, and repair broken ones. All of us lose our keys and forget names. It’s also important to know there are many reasons lapses in memory occur, like taking certain medications, lack of sleep and excessive alcohol, or stress.
As always, an excellent place to start is with your doctor. It can be scary to discuss memory loss with anyone, let alone a medical professional. Taking care of your overall health can start by having a friendly, candid relationship with your physician.
When seniors learn new hobbies or skills, their brains become engaged. Regularly challenging your mind can be fun and beneficial. Your diet also plays a vital role in your brain health. Try eating a healthy, low solid fat diet containing many vegetables and fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, and broccoli. Social connection is also critical to senior brain health. Stay in touch with family and friends, or volunteer. Social isolation can lead to depression and hasten dementia.
Another term is Cognitive Health, which is the ability to think clearly, learn, and remember. Other components of brain health include Motor function—how well you make and control movements; Emotional function—how well you interpret and respond to emotions; and Sensory function—how well you feel and respond to sensations of touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature. Be wary of claims that playing a particular computer and online game can improve your memory and other types of thinking; evidence to back up such claims is still evolving. Scientists have proven the mind and the body are connected. Staying physically active is good for your body and your mind. Physical activity through regular exercise, household chores, or other activities has many benefits, such as improving your mood and reducing depression, preventing or delaying heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases. Exercise can also improve your balance and give you more energy, which helps your brain stay engaged.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same condition. Dementia is a general term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills, including judgment, reasoning, and complex motor skills. Alzheimer’s is a dementia-related illness.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60–80% of dementia cases. It is a chronic disease that causes memory loss or difficulty thinking or problem-solving to the point where it interferes with everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease can progress to where a person doesn’t remember their own family and might undergo a complete personality change. Another type of dementia is vascular dementia, which is a decline in memory and thinking skills brought on by blockage or reduction of blood flow to the brain that deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients. Risk factors are similar to those for heart problems, stroke, and other diseases that affect blood vessels.
These dementia-related illnesses are not a normal part of aging, and to limit your chances of getting dementia or better manage the condition, it’s essential to know the symptoms and prevention techniques that are most effective. The most significant risk factors for these conditions are things you often can’t control, including age, family history, and genetics. However, the good news is that studies suggest that lifestyle changes can slow or prevent onset.
Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar within recommended limits. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, can be helpful for dementia prevention and reducing your stress levels. Try to be aware of harmful substances such as alcohol and cigarette smoking. Quitting smoking is the best option, if possible. Seniors can also try small things to challenge their brains, such as brushing your teeth or eating with your non-dominant hand.
Warning Signs and Symptoms
These are some common warning signs and symptoms of dementia. Keep in mind that every individual is unique and may not display all of them.
- Difficulty finding words
- Trouble completing multi-step tasks
- Challenges with identifying time, person, or place
- Misplacing familiar objects
- Personality changes
- Loss of interest in important responsibilities
- Expressing false beliefs
- Changes in judgment
It is beneficial to understand different causes that can impact one’s memory other than the potential presence of dementia. Physical health changes, such as a vitamin deficiency, thyroid problems, urinary tract infection, medication side effects, stress, substance abuse, and depression may all cause changes in memory and other symptoms of dementia, such as confusion. A thorough assessment by your physician or specialist, such as a neurologist, can determine what is causing these symptoms.
Although it can be scary or challenging to acknowledge changes within ourselves or someone close to us, it is crucial to do so and take action. For some seniors, receiving a diagnosis also can provide some relief in knowing that it’s not something they are doing but rather something that is happening in them. If you have questions or are looking for support with dementia, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has a toll-free national helpline where you can talk with a licensed social worker. Call 1-866-232-8484.
National Council on Aging (NCOA 2019). https://www.ncoa.org/blog/dementia-and-alzheimers-disease-difference-why-matters/
National Institutes of Health (NIH) (May 17, 2017). https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
National Institutes on Aging (NIA 2019). https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/engage-your-brain/maintain-your-balance