Memorial Regional Health: When practicing good health, don’t forget the mind — mental fitness increasingly important as people age
- Get mental stimulation
- Get physical exercise
- Improve your diet
- Improve your blood pressure
- Improve your blood sugar
- Improve your cholesterol
- Consider low-dose aspirin
- Avoid tobacco
- Don’t abuse alcohol
- Care for your emotions
- Protect your head from injury
Staying mentally fit is one of the habits the world’s longest-living people have in common, but it requires work.
The World Health Organization reports that Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases will affect one in five people at some point in life. Some of these brain diseases are mental illnesses, such as depression, while others are considered neurological disorders, such as dementia.
There are ways to stay ahead of memory loss as we age by practicing good health habits. Harvard Medical School recommends staying physically active, getting enough sleep, not smoking, having good social connections, limiting alcohol to one drink per day, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats as important ways to prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia. Research also shows that keeping the mind active — through continued learning, using all your senses, and believing in yourself, among other practices — can protect and improve memory.
Have you had trouble remembering things such as doctor’s appointments or whether you took your medicine? Are you forgetting with whom you just spoke on the phone or whether you’ve already taken a shower today? When memory deficits begin affecting your daily routine or your safety, it’s time to enlist some help, said Joan Parnell, a speech language pathologist with Memorial Regional Health. There’s one specific speech therapy memory technique that can help: WRAP, which stands for write it down, repeat it, associate it, picture it.
Dementia is a term that describes “a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“People with dementia may have problems with short-term memory, keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments, or traveling out of the neighborhood,” according to the association.
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, which interferes with their to communicate with each other. These changes are often permanent and worsen over time.
While there are no guaranteed methods for preventing memory loss or dementia, Parnell said doing things to improve mental fitness or speech therapy can improve or compensate for memory decline.
“I always tell people to imagine a picture of a brain with arms and legs, and the brain is lifting weights — if you don’t exercise your brain, it won’t work as well as it used to,” she said. “It’s just like arms and legs — if you don’t use them, you can’t pick up things or walk. So, exercise the brain, or lose it.”
Improving mental fitness
Learning a new language or how to play an instrument can stimulate the mind and help keep it fit, Parnell said. She also recommends reading, crossword or other puzzles, playing cards, and playing memory-based computer games. These things should be done in addition to regular socialization, staying organized, using a calendar, decreasing clutter, keeping a wallet or purse and keys in the same place, sleeping well, eating a healthful diet, and exercising regularly, she added.
“Exercise helps memory and thinking, both directly and indirectly. Exercise directly can reduce insulin resistance, inflammation, and stimulate chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells,” she said. “Indirectly, exercise can improve sleep, mood, and stress. These areas can cause or contribute to a cognitive decline.”
Sleep also plays a major role. A report from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that getting an average amount of sleep — 7 hours per day — may help maintain memory later in life. But the study of women also found that those who didn’t get enough sleep and those who got too much sleep were mentally two years older than those who got seven to eight hours per night.
The bottom line for improving mental fitness is to practice healthy lifestyle choices. The “use it or lose it” health philosophy applies not only to physical fitness, but also mental fitness.
Editor’s note: The foregoing article is sponsored content from Memorial Regional Health.
The history of Northwest Colorado has no shortage of fascinating characters. A.G. and Augusta Wallihan are no exception.