In the interest of self-care, let’s focus on the health of our own brains today.
Whether you happen to be the care partner/family member of a person living with dementia or a professional in the field of dementia care, I would not be surprised if, like me, you have worried about the possibility of developing dementia. There seems to be more hope than ever before that we actually can stack the deck to prevent dementia, at least in a majority of cases. No matter how old we are right now, we can improve the health of our brain.
If you are a care partner for someone with dementia and already thinking that you simply don’t have time to think about the lifestyle strategies I’m about to detail, see if you can reframe taking care of yourself as a huge favor to your loved one. If you and your brain are not in the best of shape, it may be difficult to continue to be there fully for that person who benefits from your relationship.
Over the past several weeks, I have encountered nearly identical messages on the topic of brain health from three different sources: a well-known brain surgeon, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, author of the new book, Keep Sharp, an Alzheimer’s Association webinar about latest research efforts, and my exercise teacher, a PhD student with close access to neurologists, who recently did a webinar of his own on this very topic.
The PhD student was walking on a beach one day with a neurologist friend. (This is not the beginning of a joke!) He asked the neurologist what would be the first thing the neurologist would do, if he was diagnosed with dementia. The neurologist replied, “I would start doing 15 hours per week of aerobic exercise, and I think that would turn it around.” That’s a stunning statement. Whether you believe that’s possible or not, the idea of EXERCISE being THE BEST thing for your brain has been around for quite a while. It is currently backed up by more solid research than other recommendations concerning preventing dementia. I hear more and more now about the specific benefits of aerobic exercise. If walking is your preferred mode of exercise, brisk walking can be effective for increasing your heart rate. Of course, it is important to check with your doctor about what is okay for YOU to do in terms of exercise, if you are not already clear on that.
So the #1 prescription is to KEEP MOVING.
Here are other recommendations for preventing dementia, which are being more fully studied as we speak:
2. GET ENOUGH SLEEP: There is evidence that as we sleep, the body heals and memory is strengthened. Enough sleep (7-8 hours/night) can improve your chances of avoiding dementia in the future. During sleep, metabolic debris in the brain is actually flushed away. This includes sticky proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping, the advice is to avoid naps, and try to develop a regular schedule for sleep, and make sure your room is cool, quiet and dark. Yes, this may be challenging if you are caring for a person with dementia who gets up in the middle of the night and needs attention. If you exercise in the morning rather than later in the day, that can help you sleep better. Establishing bedtime rituals to help you relax and unwind can be helpful too. Consult your doctor if nothing seems to work.
3. MANAGE STRESS: This can involve a number of strategies. TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF, even if it’s just a few minutes to close your eyes, breathe, and do nothing. Many mindfulness apps are available via your smart phone or over the internet these days to guide you in short meditations and/or to help you relax before sleep. See www.hminnovations.org for more information.
DOING FUN THINGS is part of managing stress, as is CONNECTING WITH OTHERS (which can be fun). Social isolation can speed up the process of developing dementia – I sure saw that happen with my own mother during the year after my dad died. As a widow myself now, I have learned the importance of reaching out to others. It’s not always easy but it is essential. Remaining socially connected is vital to well-being and to the health of our brains.
SEEK PURPOSE AND MEANING. A sense of purpose helps balance the stress of life. People never lose the drive to be of use to others. People with dementia still have that drive, but it may not be obvious. We must help them express their interests and passions. Purpose can be expressed in a myriad of ways. It’s worth pondering what brings and has brought MEANING to your life. Are you as deeply connected to what gives you a sense of purpose as you’d like to be?
4. KEEP LEARNING. If you’ve always done crossword puzzles, well, do them for fun if you want, but if you find something NEW to learn, your brain will thank you even more. Take a class on something you’ve never explored before. The brain is still able to make brand new neural connections as we age. You can also challenge yourself by changing your routines even a little. Do you walk the same route when you take a walk? How about changing it up? You can even try brushing your teeth with your other hand, it’s good for your brain, though a tad inefficient!
5. NOURISH YOURSELF. Generally, eating more fruits and veggies, less red meat and minimizing processed foods is recommended. Beans, sweet potatoes, nuts and whole grains are especially helpful. As dementia can be caused by vascular issues, what is good for the heart is good for the brain. The Mediterranean diet (The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by John Chatham looks like a good introduction) is recommended by the American Heart Assn. as well as the American Diabetes Assn., is conducive to brain health. Fruits and vegetables have a myriad of benefits. They are a great source of vitamins and minerals. Do check with your physician if you are on any medications, as some foods (green leafy vegetables, for example), may not be compatible with some meds. You might want to check with your doctor about dramatic dietary changes, to make sure they are a good fit for you.
So there you go. Five ways to reduce your chances of developing dementia. If this feels like too much, start small, do what you can. bit by bit. See what happens.
To review: MOVE. SLEEP. MANAGE STRESS (Relax, have fun, connect with others, live your purpose). KEEP LEARNING. NOURISH YOURSELF.
Even if I should get dementia, despite valiant efforts in these areas, I bet I’ll do better with it if I make it part of my purpose in life to do all of the above!
Resources: Keep Sharp by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. Rebecca Edelmeyer, Alzheimer’s Association Research Webinar, May 4, 2021, Scott Anderson, Pilates on Harrison, Preventing Dementia Webinar, April 24, 2021.
- Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dimensions Program Coordinator