By Dr. Greg Jicha
University of Kentucky
Healthy brain aging is a concern for all of us. June is recognized as Brain and Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. It’s normal to struggle with little things like remembering names — and we all experience some slowing of thought processes with advancing age — but everyone hopes to avoid serious cognitive impairment.
Some cognitive difficulties, such as Alzheimer’s disease, have underlying pathological causes that we are still trying to understand, but we know that the brain can also lose its functions simply due to poor physical, mental and social health. Many causes of cognitive decline are preventable.
Just as we create exercise routines for the body, we should create a routine for brain health.
Generally, what is good for heart health is good for brain health. Exercising regularly, eating well and maintaining a healthy weight promote brain health.
People of all ages, especially older adults, benefit from leaving home, participating in learning activities, and having an active social life. It’s important to commit to a schedule that encourages all of these healthy brain aging activities.
Summer, in many ways, is the perfect time to set up a routine for healthy brain aging. Warm weather provides opportunities for physical exercise through gardening and walking. Many community organizations offer summer courses in dance, photography, art, music and other hobbies.
Summer is also the season for farmers markets and fresh produce. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain compounds called plant polyphenols. These compounds, which help plants fight disease, have been observed in animal models to extend lifespan by promoting overall cellular health. Blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and red wine are good sources of polyphenols.
Anyone interested in healthy brain aging can also practice “neurobics”. These “brain aerobics” are activities that can be added to the daily schedule on a whim. For example, taking a different route home, shopping at a different grocery store, or deliberately driving or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
These simple activities activate the problem-solving areas of the brain as the person navigates unfamiliar territory.
Social engagement is essential for older people, who may see their social circle shrink as friends and loved ones move, develop serious illness or die.
Senior centers offer excellent resources for social activities. Something as simple as getting together with others for a regular game of cards can help keep the brain’s cognitive functions sharp. For some seniors, moving into a seniors’ residence is ideal, as it provides more opportunities for structured activities and socializing with peers.
Through socialization, hobbies, lifelong learning, healthy eating, physical activity, and daily brain stimulation, most people have the ability to achieve healthy brain aging.
I’ve seen some patients reverse mild cognitive impairment simply by adopting a healthier lifestyle – so it’s never too late to encourage healthy brain aging.
Dr. Greg Jicha, MD, Ph.D, is assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center