22 Sep 2020
Have you ever met a sharp-as-a-tack nonagenarian and thought to yourself, I hope my brain is this limber when I reach the age of 90? Well, there are certainly no guarantees, but experts say there is a lot you can do now to maintain and improve your brain health.
Dr. Cathryn Ann Devons, a physician affiliated with Phelps Hospital/Northwell Health, specializing in the care of older Americans (a geriatrician), notes that the over 65 population is growing at a dramatic rate. Even the oldest age demographic, people 100 and older, will see significant growth over the next several decades. “In 1900, there were just 95,000 people in the world over the age of 100 but by 2015, this had grown to 451,000,” she says. “By 2060, we’re projected to have 3.7 million people over 100.”
In looking at these trends, the importance of nurturing our brain health takes on a new urgency. According to Dr. Devons, the three key factors for preserving good brain health are exercise, nutrition, and preventive health care. Here’s what you can start doing now to help ensure your brain stays in tip-top shape!
Dr. Devons’ two longest-lived patients, aged 105 and 109, exercised throughout their lives. “The benefits of exercise are many,” she says. “Not only can exercise improve your sleep, increase happiness, decrease muscle tension, and improve energy, but it helps increase your brain neurotransmitters, which help with memory and with stress reduction.”
Keep in mind that any exercise program should be individualized. “Some people are helped by chair exercises, walking in the home or walking outside,” she explains. “Everyone is different. The important thing is to keep moving and do your best every day.”
You are what you eat.
The second essential part of any plan to keep your brain healthy is to follow a good diet, says Dr. Devons. “Eating a well-balanced diet also helps you maintain a healthy weight, reduces the incidence of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, and makes for strong bones, muscles and heart,” she says.
So do you have to give up the foods you love? “You don’t want to think of certain foods as ‘bad’ foods, but rather you want to learn how to incorporate more beneficial foods into your diet,” says Susan Juechter, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, CDCES, a senior clinical dietitian at Phelps Hospital/Northwell Health. “If you have been eating something your whole life, it may not be feasible to stop completely. But you can make small changes.”
She focuses on three diets that promise to promote cognitive vitality. The DASH Diet, devised by the National Institutes of Health to prevent and control hypertension without medication, recommends eating fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and beans. Originally created to
help reduce hypertension, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, it is now theorized that lowering blood pressure may protect the brain.
There is some evidence that the Mediterranean diet, which recommends foods high in monounsaturated fatty acids – like those found in olive oil and avocados, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and nuts, may have long-term benefits for cognitive health.
And the MIND diet, introduced in 2015 by Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a leading expert in nutritional epidemiology at Rush University in Chicago, promotes the consumption of green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and moderate amounts of alcohol, preferably red wine.
“The focus of some of these newer meal plans is on looking at the relationship between the foods we eat and the effect they have on our brain,” Juechter explains. “Focus on a primarily plant-based diet, with lots of leafy greens, many different vegetables, and berries.“
Nuts are a great source of healthy fats in this diet and they also have protein, she says. She recommends limiting or avoiding butter and margarine while still enjoying healthy fats such as avocados and olive oil.
Can you drink alcohol? “I think both coffee and alcohol in moderation are okay for most people, but check with your doctor,” Dr. Devons advises.
Pay attention to preventive care.
Dr. Devons says she is a big proponent of preventive health. Primary prevention techniques (such as vaccines for flu, pneumonia, tetanus, and shingles) should be on your “to do” list. Check with your doctor to see which ones you need. “Secondary prevention techniques consist of early detection of disease before the onset of symptoms,” She advocates regular checkups, a mammogram and a gynecological exam for women, a prostate exam for men, and a bone density scan and colonoscopy for everyone.
Other factors that can affect your brain health.
We all want to keep our memory sharp and do everything we can to ensure good brain health. But some health conditions can affect your memory, cautions Dr. Devons. Among the potentially reversible and treatable causes of memory loss is depression. “Aging can be a time of loss, the loss of independence, a spouse, a job, family and friends,” she says. “Depression is not only common – but treatable with counseling and medications.”
It is also important to be aware of illnesses that may affect brain function. Strokes, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disorders, alcoholism, anemia, kidney disease, and liver disease are among the disorders that can wreak havoc with your memory.
Additionally, certain medications can cause confusion. “Due to changes in body composition, older people are more susceptible to side effects of medication,” she says. “This is particularly true of sleeping pills, sedatives, tranquilizers, and some pain medications. So these need to be carefully prescribed, often in lower doses.”
Getting enough good sleep is also essential to brain health as well as overall health.
Again, our best shot at optimal brain health is being mindful of what we eat, exercising to the extent we can, and visiting our physicians for preventive health care and to address any concerns.