Small changes can make a big difference for brain health
There are small changes you can make every day to increase your overall health. That’s the message of a class, hosted by Community Ed and the Alzheimer’s Association, Nov. 13, titled Healthy Living for your Brain and Body.
Jim Adams, class instructor, asked attendees to think about the reasons for taking care of themselves, before moving on to strategies to help people live well.
Areas of consideration were diet and nutrition, physical health, social engagement and cognitive activity.
“Aging well depends on your genes, imagine that, our environment and our lifestyles,” said Adams.
Adams noted that some lifestyle choices can help aging go smoothly, while other choices, like heavy drinking or smoking, can have the opposite effect.
“Of course our brain, that’s the control center,” said Adams. “We’ve got 100 billion of these neurons up here talking to each other.”
Adams says the neurons are all interconnected, much like landline phones. Dementia is when those connections break down. Alzheimer’s disease destroys the cells necessary for storing, and retrieving memories or skills.
“Dementia is caused by many different conditions, but it is not a part of aging,” said Adams.
Adams says he lost his wife from dementia five years ago, and noticed that the changes occur slowly over time, so they are easy to dismiss as part of getting old.
“But, when I look back at my wife’s case, I could see three years before she was diagnosed, I could see things that I dismissed as aging,” said Adams.
The longer someone lives, the higher the chance they will get Alzheimer’s and since women often live longer than men, the chances of women getting the disease is higher. The therapies for Alzheimer’s only treat the symptoms. Right now, there is no cure.
Adams noted there are some promising improvements on the horizon, but it takes time to work them into the normal care processes.
Adams explained the brain is also interrelated with the heart and what is good for the heart, is good for the brain, in terms of exercise and diet.
“Twenty-five percent of every heartbeat goes to the brain,” said Adams.
Physical activity has been shown in studies to help reduce cognitive decline.
“We take in more oxygen when we exercise,” said Adams, adding much of that oxygen is carried to the brain with the increased bloodflow.
Walking, biking or any other physical activity will help, since there is no single recipe for exercising. Adams says he plays pickleball, stretches and rides bike multiple times per week for his exercise of choice. Some activities, like pickleball, also allow a friend to join those exercising to make the experience more social.
“If you’re not regularly exercising now, it’s a good idea to start out small,” said Adams, adding that a health check-up may give you ideas where to start.
He says there is also new research looking at how the gut works together with the brain.
Adams says it is important to allow the gut to do its natural processes and that some processed foods can hurt those processes.
“So, nutritious fuel for the brain is what we’re after,” said Adams.
Fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens and berries, are noted as good for overall health. Adams also noted limiting solid fats and sugar is beneficial for health.
“We don’t have to avoid these things totally,” said Adams. “But if somebody is going to a McDonald’s every day...then that really builds up the cholesterol.”
When it comes to vitamins and supplements, Adams suggests working with a doctor or dietician to decide what is needed, since it is possible to get too much of certain vitamins.
The third way to remain healthy is by cognitive activity.
“Keeping our mind active, that’s what forms new connections up here in these 100 billion neurons,” said Adams.
He says learning and mentally stimulating activities also promotes blood flow in the brain can help maintain, or even improve, cognition. Adams says games, like chess or cards, learning a new instrument or language, are examples of stimulating activities.
Social engagement was the final area Adams talked about for a healthy brain. Adams says proven studies have shown people who are socially engaged live longer and have fewer disabilities. He says being socially engaged can be as easy as going to a class, volunteering, or talking to family and friends.
“It’s one of the things that people with dementia lose, is they start to withdraw from societal activities and they tend to want to be alone all the time,” said Adams. “And that’s a sign that something is not right here, because we are social creatures.”
Adams says combining the four areas can give maximum benefits for brain health. Eventually, they will become habits.
“And those are good habits to have,” said Adams.
Adams says start with small changes and do things you enjoy.
“If you enjoy it, you’ll stick with it,” said Adams.
The overall goal should be to be healthy as long as you can be, mind and body. Adams suggested making a plan and getting support from other people. He says it is important to do research and be wary of those who claim to have miracle cures.
“I know for me, in my wife’s case, I don’t know what I would have done without the computer,” said Adams. “We first thought it was Alzheimer’s Disease that she had and I started researching Alzheimer’s Disease, and things weren’t matching up.”
Adams says research can help people ask their medical teams important questions. He says the Alzheimer’s Association, and local Aging and Disability Resource Centers are good resources to start with.
“Our country really needs a dialogue of mental health.”