11 Ways to Promote Brain Health in Delaware

As we age, the risk of cognitive impairment increases. Luckily, incorporating certain lifestyle choices can help support brain health.

Two out of 3 Americans 70 and older experience some level of cognitive decline, according to the National Institutes of Health. Here, our experts explain why lifestyle is a key factor in brain health and offer ways to stay young at heart—and in mind.

Growing older comes with inevitable changes, including facial lines, joint pain and excess weight. However, most adults are more worried about their minds than their bodies. Baby boomers have watched parents and older relatives struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other cognitive impairments. Many Americans are also at high risk of having a stroke, which can affect memory and cognitive function.

The concern is warranted: Nearly one-third of Americans 65 and older have some level of cognitive impairment, according to a study published in JAMA Neurology. In that group, 10% have dementia, and Black and Latino Americans are at a higher risk of lowered brain function.

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The good news is that many lifestyle choices that benefit other parts of the body—such as the heart—can also help the brain. “There are definitely some preventative steps we can take to maintain higher cognitive processes,” says Wendi Schirvar, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with Beebe Medical Group.

Here are 11 ways to promote brain health, according to experts.

Butt out

Smoking of any kind can harden blood vessels, increasing the likelihood of stroke, notes Georgia Kousoulis, PA-C, a certified physician assistant with TidalHealth Neurology. By quitting, you can also reduce the chance of developing heart disease, cancer and lung disease.

Move your body

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, exercise may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive decline. The proof is in the numbers. One study found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What’s the connection? Exercise increases the nourishing blood flow throughout the body—including the brain. It also boosts endorphins that combat stress.

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You don’t need to run marathons to benefit, Schirvar points out. “Do 5,000 steps or 10,000 steps a day.” Indeed, a University of Wisconsin study found that 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five days a week, helped high-risk participants over age 60 lower the chance of developing the disease.

Kousoulis suggests walking and weightlifting.

Pour some sugar on…out

The brain demands more glucose—energy—than any other organ in the body, according to an article published by Harvard Medical School. But too much can cause problems. For instance, high glucose levels can cause the brain to shrink and accelerate brain aging.

In the modern American diet, sugar shows up in all sorts of unexpected places. Be sure to check food labels, or better yet, shop farmers markets or the perimeter of your grocery market. It’s also in plenty of cocktails, which is one reason—among many—why experts suggest cutting back on alcohol.

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Hit all your REM cycles (3 to 5 a night)

It’s common to experience brain fog after a poor night’s sleep. However, prolonged sleep disturbances can have a profound effect on brain health. According to Yale University, the human brain needs restorative sleep to store long-term memories. What’s more, sleep gives the noggin time to clear abnormal proteins.

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Benefits come from slumbering for consecutive hours, not increments, which is why people with sleep apnea should seek treatment. Schirvar recommends establishing a sleep schedule—go to bed and wake up close to the same times daily.

Mangiamo!

Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean meats and nuts may help reduce the risk of stroke, Kousoulis says. There are also overall benefits for your brain. University of Barcelona researchers followed nearly 850 French citizens 65 and older for a decade. All were dementia-free at the study’s start. Those who adhered to a plant-based diet with healthy fats were less likely to have cognitive decline.

Under pressure

High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for stroke, Kousoulis notes. Moreover, a Johns Hopkins University study found that people with high blood pressure in midlife had a greater decline in certain thinking skills as they aged. That wasn’t the case for those with normal blood-pressure readings.

If you have high blood pressure, take medication as prescribed, Kousoulis says, and check your levels frequently.

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Say ‘ohm’

Working (or not working) to reduce or eliminate stress is good for your blood pressure and your brain. When we’re under stress, it’s easy to be forgetful, and over time, it can change the way the brain processes information and holds memories.

Stress also triggers the brain to release such hormones as adrenaline and norepinephrine that produce the heightened fight-or-flight response.

As we mature, we may feel more confident saying no to activities we don’t like and yes to those that bring joy, Schirvar says. “Pleasant experiences can support healthy cognitive functioning.”

When we’re under stress, it’s easy to be forgetful, and over time, it can change the way the brain processes information and holds memories.

Eat your vitamins

B vitamins help make chemicals that affect mood and other brain functions. B12, for instance, supports brain and blood vessel health, which is why providers check for B12 levels in acute stroke patients, Kousoulis says. One of the best sources of B vitamins is organ meats, like liver; supplement forms are available for those who don’t have the palate for meat.

Check it off

Given our busy schedules and multiple distractions, forgetfulness is understandable. Follow the “everything in its place” approach so you don’t continually look for your key or phone, Schirvar says. Make lists to remember important tasks, record your consultations with a doctor, and use technology to remind yourself to take medications or be on time for an appointment.

Seek real connections

Older adults who socialize have healthier brains, according to a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. Consider it mental exercise. Volunteering, working after retirement and scheduling time with friends foster a sense of community.

That said, introverts might be perfectly fine with limited social interactions, Shirvar notes. Don’t put pressure on yourself to attend a party just because you heard that socializing is helpful.

Games, puzzles and classes are also engaging and stimulate the mind. However, the jury is still out as to whether they can slow cognitive decline. Certainly, they can’t hurt.

Embrace change

Change is sustainable when you start with baby steps, Shirvar maintains. “Pick one thing and then make small changes to reach the goal,” she explains. “If you change a lot of things, it can be overwhelming.”

Accept that your mind, like your body, will age. “You’re not going to be doing all of the things you once could,” she says. “But it doesn’t mean you’re going to be incapacitated.”

Related: Meditation Offer Heart Health Benefits for Delawareans

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