Brain health in old age

by | Dementia, Seniors Health

With life expectancy on the rise, quality of life in our later years is becoming increasingly important. So keeping our minds as well as our bodies healthy is a priority.

What can you do to keep your brain sharp?

1) Exercise your brain

Like the body, the brain benefits from being used and challenged — from being ‘kept in shape’. Challenging the brain with new activities can create new pathways within the brain that can act as alternate routes if some neurones (nerve cells) are damaged. You could try:

  • playing games that involve planning and memory such as chess and bridge;
  • trying activities that test your vocabulary such as crosswords and Scrabble;
  • learning a new skill — perhaps a language or a musical instrument;
  • doing sums in your head rather than automatically reaching for a calculator;
  • volunteering; and
  • keeping informed about what’s happening in the world.

Recently, several companies have developed computer programs aimed at giving users a mental workout. While preliminary studies are encouraging, more research needs to be done to see whether these programs delay or prevent a decline in mental function over the long term.

2) Keep physically active

Research has shown that physical activity can protect against loss of mental function. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and may promote neurone growth. You don’t have to run a marathon straight away — you can start by gradually increasing the level of physical activity in your day-to-day life and building it up from there. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Take the stairs rather than the lift.
  • Park your car further away than you would normally and walk the extra distance.
  • If you have a dog, take it for longer and more regular walks.
  • Ride a stationary exercise bike while watching TV.
  • Take up a hobby that keeps you physically active, such as gardening.

If you are doing more vigorous activities such as cycling or rollerblading, make sure you wear a helmet, as head injuries are an important risk factor for memory problems.

3) Eat a healthy diet

Like your body, your brain thrives on a well-balanced diet. A healthy diet can go a long way towards preventing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure that may impair your mental function.

Try to keep your weight under control, bearing in mind that energy requirements generally fall after the age of 70, and aim to include the following nutrients in your diet:

  • Protein. This is essential for supplying your brain with amino acids (protein building blocks). Good sources of protein include fish, poultry, lean meats, grains and pulses, and dairy food.
  • The right type of fats. This means unsaturated fats — from oily fish, nuts, and oils such as sunflower oil and olive oil — rather than saturated fats — those in meats, dairy and products such as biscuits, cakes and pies. Unsaturated fats are an important constituent of neurone membranes.
  • Carbohydrates. These supply glucose, a form of sugar and the fuel that neurones need to function. As the brain cannot store much glucose, it must receive a steady supply from the bloodstream. So breakfast is very important in giving your brain enough fuel for the day. When choosing sources of carbohydrate, glycaemic index is an important concept. Foods with a low or medium glycaemic index — such as brown rice, chick peas, kidney beans, oatmeal and whole grain bread — are preferred as they tend to release glucose more steadily into the bloodstream (and therefore to the brain) than those with a high glycaemic index — such as potatoes, soft drinks, cakes and lollies.
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables. These supply antioxidants that protect your neurones. Fresh whole foods (especially oranges, berries, broccoli, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes) seem to provide more health benefits than antioxidant supplements.

4) Be cautious about supplements

Various supplements and herbal medicines are often marketed as having anti-ageing properties. However, research into this area is still in its infancy. You should check with your doctor before taking a supplement to ensure that it is appropriate and that it does not interact with any other medicines you are taking.

  • DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Little good quality research has been done on this hormone, but at present there is no evidence that it helps mental function in healthy people.
  • Ginkgo biloba. There is inconsistent evidence that this Chinese herb benefits those with Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. Also, there is so far no evidence that it slows mental decline in healthy adults. Further research into this area is awaited.
  • Folic acid. There is no consistent evidence that supplementing with folic acid slows mental decline in healthy people or in those with dementia.

5) Stop smoking

Smoking can affect the memory as well as causing a myriad of other health problems. Smokers have twice the risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-smokers, but they can reduce their risk of dementia by quitting smoking. So kicking the habit is a great idea for your body and your mind.

6) Manage stress

Studies of humans and animals suggest that long term stress can be a factor in memory loss. Stress can also increase the risk of depression and anxiety, both of which can affect the memory.

If stress is a problem, you could try a relaxation class or strategies such as breathing deeply and simplifying your life if possible.

7) Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all

Heavy drinking over a long period of time can lead to brain damage. However, moderate drinking can help prevent memory loss — it is unclear how this works, but it is possible that alcohol makes the blood less likely to clot and hence cause tissue damage.

The Australian Government guidelines suggest:

  • Healthy men and women should drink no more than 2 standard drinks on any day to reduce the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.
  • Older people are particularly susceptible to the effects of alcohol – harm from alcohol-related disease is more evident among older people.

Older people are more likely than younger people to have interactions between alcohol and medicines. Make sure you check with your doctor or pharmacist whether any medicines you are taking interact with alcohol. If you don’t drink, it is not advised that you start purely for the health benefits, as these can be obtained in many other ways.

8) Have your health monitored regularly by your doctor

Regular check-ups can help detect illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease and depression. These conditions increase the risk of memory loss, but they can usually be treated effectively.

What can you do to help remember things?

Here are some strategies you can try.

  • Always keep things you need frequently (keys, glasses etc.) in the same place.
  • Use a calendar or electronic organiser to keep track of events and keep it with you at all times.
  • Make lists of things you have to do each day such as calls to make and bills to pay.
  • Keep your address book updated and easy to find.
  • Ask your pharmacist to put your medicines in a pill box labelled with the days of the week.