Simple steps to keep your mind sharp
My wife calls it COVID brain. After being stuck at home under stressful circumstances for so long we all begin acting dopey. Like prisoners trapped in solitary confinement, we all begin bouncing off the walls. Scientists know that social isolation contributes to “worse overall cognitive performance and executive functioning, faster rates of cognitive decline, more negative depressive thinking, heightened sensitivity to social threats, and a fear of others. There is no cure for COVID but there is a cure for COVID brain. Here are some specific, evidence-based recommendations for people to consider incorporating into their lives to maintain and improve brain health. AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) is an independent group of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts from around the world working in areas of brain health related to mental functioning. The GCBH and AGE UK were commissioned to evaluate the evidence for making scientifically valid recommendations on lifestyle choices intended to improve brain health.
Read on for evidence-based way’s to keep your mind healthy and sharp from Harvard Medical School and the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH)
First the three don’ts
1. Avoid tobacco
Avoid tobacco in all its forms, if you didn’t know this already smoking is not good for you and not good for your brain. Nuff said.
2. Don’t abuse alcohol
Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to two drinks a day. Hard liquor over 15% alcohol is particularly harmful.
3. Don’t get kicked in the head
Moderate to severe head injuries, even without diagnosed concussions, increase the risk of cognitive impairment.
1. Exercise your body staying physically active.
Current research strongly supports the idea that physical activity has a positive impact on brain health. It doesn’t matter if it is from having a physically active lifestyle (walking to work or the store in place of driving, taking the stairs, and engaging in hobbies and sports) or from formal exercise (tai chi, brisk walking, strength training, and aerobic training).
Animal studies have shown that exercise facilitates neuroplasticity and improves learning outcomes. Animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance, and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart.
Research shows that exercise:
- Helps the brain grow new brain cells (neurons). Exercise like tai chi appears to slow age-related brain shrinkage and maintain the cognitive abilities as we age. Studies suggest that this is because regular exercise helps spur the growth of new neurons.
- Helps prevent stroke and some forms of dementia. Exercise helps lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure damages the arteries that supply blood to the brain, which in turn can cause stroke, trouble with understanding and memory, and dementia as you get older.
Even simple leisure type physical activities have a substantial effect.
2. Exercise your brain
Mentally stimulating activities or exercises that challenge a person’s ability to think and process information. These include mind-teaser games, educational activities, intellectual inquiries, and mental challenges. Through research with mice and humans, scientists have found that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological “plasticity” and building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss.
Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, learn new things take online courses, try “mental gymnastics,” such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental efforts, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
Keeping your brain active appears to protect the connections among brain cells, and may even help you grow new cells.
Here are some ways to use your brain every day, from the Alzheimer’s Foundation:
- Stay curious and involved
- Read, write, solve crossword or other puzzles
- Attend lectures and plays
- Enroll in courses at your local adult education center, community college or other community groups
- Play games
- Try memory exercises
According to researchers at Harvard Medical School including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety — in which well-designed, well-run studies have shown benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments.
People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don’t necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.
3. Eat a healthy diet eating a Mediterranean style diet.
The GCBH also examined the link between certain nutrients, foods, and dietary patterns that could potentially lead to better cognitive outcomes in older adults (90–92). To that end, this review considered studies including nutritional mechanisms, observational studies, and randomized controlled trials (93–103). These studies have shown that eating patterns affect brain health over an individual’s entire life span, supporting the importance of eating a balanced diet. For example, there is growing evidence that nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are highly beneficial when taken as part of a balanced diet rather than as concentrated supplements.
A great example of brain-healthy diets: The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet [MeDi] reflects the patterns of food consumption in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. In general terms, it is characterized by a high intake of monounsaturated fats (with extra virgin olive oil as the main source), vegetables, fruits, plant proteins, whole grains, and fish. This diet limits the consumption of red meat, refined grains, and sweets. It often includes a moderate intake of wine, usually red, during one of the meals. Research has shown that people that eat a Mediterranean style diet are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.
Choose healthy fats that come from plants –– polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil –– instead of saturated fats that come such foods as cheese.
Consider adding these brain-healthy foods to your menu:
- Wild salmon
- Nuts and seeds
- Citrus fruits
- Colorful vegetables
- Dark chocolate
4. Socialize: having good social connections.
Humans are, in essence, social animals. Different levels of success in social engagement are major drivers of our quality of life. Typically, the goal of social engagement is to relate to others in positive ways through our social networks. Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.
Humans are wired to be social –– even those of us who are naturally introverts. We’re learning that new experiences and new friends –– and old friends –– do more than enrich your life.
Research shows that an active social life helps reduce your risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The theory is that social connections help keep the connections between your brain cells (neurons) strong.
If you’ve been neglecting your social life, here are some ideas to jump-start it:
- Take out your address book and you know that friend you have been meaning to get in touch with for the longest time, Do it now.
- Set aside time to regularly connect with friends, by phone, by Skype, by zoom, even by socially distant meetings at a park or outdoor restaurant.
5. Getting enough sleep.
This is a hard one during the stress of COVID, our sleep structure and duration has become significantly altered. Make sure you get enough exercise during the day or you will not be tired enough to sleep. Get a good book to read and take your mind off of your troubles before bed. Learn to meditate it will help you quiet your mind of all the day’s anxieties.
6. Improve your blood pressure
High blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in old age. Use lifestyle modification to keep your pressure as low as possible. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol to two drinks a day, reduce stress, and eat right.
7. Improve your blood sugar
Diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. You can help prevent diabetes by eating right, exercising regularly, and staying lean. But if your blood sugar stays high, you’ll need medication to achieve good control.
8. Improve your cholesterol
High levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of dementia. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving your cholesterol levels. But if you need more help, ask your doctor about medication.
9. Consider low-dose aspirin
Some observational studies suggest that low-dose aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia. Ask your doctor if you are a candidate.
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