Cognitive Care: What You Can Do to Keep Your Brain Sharp

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By Erin Pittman

Life zips by — so fast sometimes we don’t even notice all that’s going on around us. We multitask, carry long to-do lists in our minds, know the names of all of our children’s friends and teachers, and manage homes and jobs, sometimes without blinking an eye. But what if one day that powerful memory that allows you to do so much suddenly began to fail you?

What Happens to the Brain As We Age?

“As we age, the brain begins to atrophy, or shrink. Some degree of this is common with older age, even in people whoare cognitively healthy. This can be accelerated in those with cognitive impairments and even faster in those who ultimately progress from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimers disease,” said Andrea Helmbach, MSN, RN, SCRN, Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center Stroke Program Manager.

Loss of brain size occurs after the age of 30 at the rate of 0.2% each year. This increases to 0.5% a year after age 70, and by age 75, 10%. Atrophy happens due to decrease in blood flow to the brain as we age. It can also be caused by a decrease in ineffectiveness of the communication between neurons.

Symptoms of cognitive loss include difficulty multitasking, decreased ability to concentrate or stay focused on tasks, forgetting names, difficulty with word retrieval and increased challenges with learning new skills.

What Can We Do to Prevent Cognitive Loss?

There are a variety of activities and practices we can partake in to keep our brains performing at their best.

Activity

Staying physically active — a combination of aerobics, strength training, stretching and balance activities — keeps the brain and body in tip-top shape.

Diet

And as we’ve been told our entire lives, eating a healthy diet plays an important role, too. “Green vegetables have lots of nutrients the brain loves. Fruits like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are full of antioxidants found to slow the brain’s aging process,” said Helmbach. She also recommends incorporating fish, plenty of whole grains and eggs, in moderation, into your diet.

Sleep

Don’t skimp on your Zzzs! Getting enough sleep minimizes the build up of beta-amyloid plaque, an abnormal protein in the brain. Helmbach shared that during sleep, the microglial cells remove toxic proteins, and the astrocytes decrease unnecessary synapses and help repair the brain’s wiring. Aim for seven to eight hours of good quality sleep each night.

Manage Stress

Keeping stress in check helps keep your brain balanced. A stressed brain isn’t able to function at its best. Feeling over-taxed? Try meditation.

“Meditation has been found to increase grey matter in the hippocampus, posterior, cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum. It also reduces stress and anxiety and improves attention and self-regulation,” said Helmbach.

Monitor Your Health

Diseases like hypertension, obesity and diabetes can cause damage to blood vessels in the body, including the brain. Be sure to see your doctor regularly and follow doctors’ orders for any medical conditions you are diagnosed with.

Keep Your Brain Active

Continue to engage in activities that use your brain and do so intentionally as you age. Though you may retire from your job, don’t let your brain retire from its!

What Are Some Good Lifelong Learning Activities for the Brain?

Try brain-training apps and websites like Brain HQ, Lumosity or Elevate. Find little ways to work your brain each day. Drive a different route home. Do math in your head. Learn something new. Take a painting or drawing class and tap into your creativity, while also working on your hand-eye coordination. Enroll in a beginner’s photography class so you can photograph the children or grandchildren. Join a bridge or
bingo group to stay sharp by playing games.

“Social stimulation encourages the brain to build more connections. Studies have suggested that socialization improves memory formatting and recall and is protectant to neurodegenerative diseases,” Helmbach said.

Brain health is essential to living the lives we know and love. And in many ways, helping it perform its best is fun! Socializing, learning new tricks and sneaking in naps are all positive ways to maintain our healthy cognitive function. So, grab a paintbrush, read a book or call a friend for some quality gab — it’s good for your brain!

Erin Pittman (epittman@princewilliamliving.com) is Editor in Chief of Prince William Living. She loves dogs, kids, books and all of those things piled in her lap on the couch.

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