The mind, just like the body, experiences an aging process. As with physical health, brain health changes over time and is experienced differently by each individual. While we cannot stop the aging process (as much as we might wish the opposite were true), we can make a commitment to be and stay physically and mentally fit.
How the brain ages
Overtime, total brain volume decreases. And, nerve cells may lose connectivity and blood flow may slow. We can also experience memory loss. While lapses in memory are expected and experienced at every age, the trouble occurs when there is a significant and noticeable cognitive decline. Such a condition requires medical attention, diagnosis and treatment.
Lifting mental weight – How to keep the mind fit
• Honor the mind-body connection. A healthy body supports a healthy mind. Engaging in regular, moderate physical activity is key to not only reducing overall disease risk, but exercise is known to improve mental focus, acuity and memory. Exercise also reduces cholesterol and blood pressure, which are linked to heart and brain health. Keep those muscles moving.
• Nourish the mind. A healthy and balanced diet doesn’t just help keep the body physically and metabolically fit; nourishment feeds the mind and keeps it sharp and operating at an optimal level. Focus on healthy fats (specifically the omegas), a rainbow of fruits and veggies. This includes staying hydrated.
• Healthy lifestyle management. Avoid smoking and keep the consumption of alcohol to a moderate level. True, alcohol may have some documented health benefits, but too much of any one thing is not necessarily better. Sometimes more is just more. There’s zero health benefit associated with smoking, so keep your lungs clear.
• Exercise the mind. Be a student of life. In other words, commit to continuous learning and intellectual stimulation. Learn a new skill, take a class, take on a new hobby, read a wide array of books and magazines, expand your vocabulary, try learning a foreign language, do puzzles of all kinds (jigsaw, crosswords, etc.). Consistent and continuous stimulation will keep those neurons firing and that brain working at top speed.
• Get social. Social interaction is crucial for brain health. Humans, by nature, are gregarious creatures (with the exception of some personality types — and that’s OK!). Social interaction helps keep us young — mentally, emotionally and physically. Gathering with friends, socializing in groups, joining a club and/or organization keeps the mind fresh, open to new ideas and stimulated. All good things.
• Sleep soundly. A chronic lack of sleep or low quality sleep affects every system in the human body. Make sure your sleep fitness is a priority.
• Check the meds. There seems to be a link between aging and the reliance on medications. Engage in open and honest conversations with your primary care physician about the side effects (mental side effects, specifically) of any medications you are on or may be prescribed. Ask if there are alternatives or if the medication is absolutely necessary. Lastly, ask what you can do to limit the side effects.
Aging is an inevitability; aging fit and healthy is often within our control.
When we make smart lifestyle and personal health behavior choices, we make the choice to be and stay strong — mentally and physically.
Guest columnist Dr. Erin Nitschke is a personal trainer, and ACE Health Coach and Fitness Nutrition Specialist. Center Stage is written by friends of the Senior Center for the Sheridan Community. It is a collection of insights and stories related to living well at every age.