As we age, the thinking/cognitive part of the brain begins to change: there is
1) gradual decline in short-term memory;
2) slower processing of thoughts (it takes longer to retrieve what you know); and
3) it takes longer to learn new skills.
Beyond these normal changes, additional cognitive impairment can be caused by a number of sometimes correctable or treatable conditions — anxiety and depression, vitamin deficiencies, medications (too many or the wrong kinds), excess alcohol and other medical illnesses.
For some people, however, cognitive decline may progress to more serious difficulty with thinking and memory, such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia. MCI means a person has problems with memory, attention, language, orientation (whether to date or place), reasoning skills, insight, and/or judgment that are severe enough to be noticed by others and are reflected on cognitive tests, but are not severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Ten to 15 percent of people with MCI progress to dementia each year. Dementia (the most common type being Alzheimer’s) means progressive deterioration of those aforementioned cognitive abilities that is severe enough to interfere with daily life, such as managing finances, taking medication safely, cooking and driving. Factors that may increase risk of MCI and dementia include smoking, poorly controlled chronic illnesses (diabetes and depression, for example), genetics, and people with little social support.
Reducing your risk
The good news is that there are a number of factors that may reduce your risk of dementia.
• Dietary factors — increased fruits and vegetables, coffee (before 3 p.m. so it doesn’t interfere with sleep), mild alcohol intake, omega 3 fatty acids, and limiting saturated fats (butter, lard).
• Cognitive reserve —education level as well as accumulated life knowledge can provide a “cushion” against future cognitive decline. Learning new things at any age can build cognitive reserve.
• Exercise enhances cardiac health and also protects against cognitive decline.
• Laughter — the use of healthy humor (not sarcasm) strengthens the immune response, lowers blood pressure and provides pain relief; some research shows that one minute of laughter has the health benefits of 10 minutes of aerobics.
• Social support — relationships with family, friends and involvement in community service can protect against the isolation and loneliness that increase the risk of cognitive decline. Smiling at strangers, a small kindness or compliment to a neighbor or store clerk — it all counts as connecting with others and reaching beyond our own lives — as does working beside others at the brain gym.
• Cognitive/mental skill training — we have long underestimated the ability of the human brain.
There is a growing body of knowledge that suggests that exercising our brain can reduce our risk of cognitive decline just as physical activity can reduce our risk of heart disease. In particular, learning new things (not just practicing things we already know) is protective, just as learning techniques to help memory, learning how to develop reasoning skills and decrease reaction time — there so many available tools now, here are some of the most common, and most fun!
Mahjong, Bridge & Other Card Games
Learning a new language
Do you have any more ideas or things that YOU DO to help maintain your brain? We’d love to hear them! Send us an email at Info@ElderCareatHome.org