It is common knowledge exercise and eating right help people stay healthy and in shape, even as they age. What many people do not know is living a “brain healthy” lifestyle can keep the brain in shape, too. Mountain-Pacific Quality Health interviewed Nanette Dowling, DO, MHPA, geriatric psychiatrist, to learn the top 10 ways to support brain health, no matter a person’s age.
1. Live an active life
“The greatest factor in supporting healthy aging, not just for your cognitive health, but your physical health, is exercise,” says Dr. Dowling. Being active supports independence, and strong evidence supports the relationship between exercise and better brain function. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the growth of brain cells. It also helps prevent many chronic conditions associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
“As we get older, there are four main areas we want to focus on: strength, endurance, balance and flexibility,” says Dr. Dowling. Putting in 20 to 30 minutes of exercise five times a week is recommended for most people.
2. Get enough sleep
Lack of sleep can cause depression, irritability, increased fall risk and memory problems. Sleep is vital to brain health. “Good quality sleep starts with the environment,” Dowling says. “Develop a routine. Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time every day.”
For people who use prescription medications to help with sleep: Be careful. “Many of them are habit forming,” explains Dr. Dowling. “Talk with your physician, talk with your pharmacist to evaluate the pros and cons. If you’ve been on something for many, many years, get help getting off these medications.”
3. Reduce stress
Dr. Dowling calls stress a powerful neurotoxin. Long-term stress can damage brain cells and lead to depression. Stress may also cause memory loss, exhaustion and decrease the body’s ability to fight off infection. “Things like tai chi [and] mindfulness are powerful ways to help manage your stress,” she suggests. Exercise also helps.
4. Eat healthy foods
No “super food” can improve brain health. However, eating fresh foods such as leafy greens and fruit and cutting out sodium (salt) can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which is destructive to good brain health.
5. Cultivate relationships
Almost 30% of older Americans live alone, but Dr. Dowling explains, while living alone and loneliness may sound redundant, they are two different things. “If you feel lonely, isolated, withdrawn, those are risk factors for depression and can also really have a powerful influence on your cognitive function,” she says. Seek out friends, family, neighbors, a senior center or other options to stay social and foster relationships.
6. Maintain your brain
“The more you use your neurons, the more they stay active,” Dr. Dowling explains, “so find things you enjoy. Whether it’s coloring, writing, drawing, listening to music, playing musical instruments, stay engaged as much as possible.”
Dr. Dowling also challenges people to be brave and try new activities, as learning something new also engages neurons and supports brain health.
7. Practice prevention
Brain health also depends on avoiding injuries and protecting the brain from harm. Safety steps include wearing a helmet while biking and using a seatbelt while driving.
“The other preventative factor I like to emphasize is taking a look at the bathroom cabinet,” says Dr. Dowling. “If you have over-the-counter medications, older medications, part of prevention and staying healthy is periodically going through and getting rid of things that could cause problems down the road.”
8. Take charge of your health
Most aspects of a person’s health are not controlled by the health care system but by his or her own actions, environment, genes and social factors. The more patients participate in their own health care, the more satisfied they tend to be with the care they receive.
“I encourage people to be stewards of their own health information,” Dr. Dowling says. “Keep a record that you are in possession of, or if you have family members who have cognitive impairment, keep a record book of their medications, things that they have done.”
9. Make community connections
“What I really mean here is taking a look at where you live,” explains Dr. Dowling. “It’s not just about your own personal health, but reaching out, getting involved and volunteering, or if you see some people in your community who may be struggling, see what you can do to encourage [them].”
To find a volunteer opportunity that is the right fit, Dr. Dowling encourages people to “do what you love; love what you do.” Seek out local community centers, local aging offices, libraries, faith-based communities or animal, homeless or other types of service shelters.
10. Reach out
“Be an advocate for, not only your own health, but also to advocate for others,” Dr. Dowling says. “If you notice family members, friends, neighbors, who seem to be struggling, don't be afraid to say something. There is a stigma against not only aging, but against cognitive decline. It’s a fear that people have, and it prevents us from getting the help that we need.” Dr. Dowling says primary care doctors and other health care providers are a good place to start to get help.
To learn more about brain health, tune in to Mountain-Pacific Quality Health’s weekly television program Healthy Living for Life on Sunday, June 23, at 8 a.m. on KHBB, or for more health tips and other topics, visit hlf.life.
Developed by Mountain-Pacific Quality Health, the Medicare Quality Innovation Network-Quality Improvement Organization (QIN-QIO) for Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii and the U.S. Pacific Territories of Guam and American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, under contract with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Contents presented do not necessarily reflect CMS policy. 11SOW-MPQHF- MT-C2-19-93