At Inspīr, we curate an environment and lifestyle that supports a philosophy of vibrant, intentional living and meaningful connection based on Nine Core Elements. Brain health is one of those vital elements we weave into the daily lives of our residents.
Our brains do it all. They manage voluntary and involuntary physical activity and control our cognitive abilities, including memory and decision-making, which affect — in ways large and small — every moment of our lives. So, of course, our brains need to be protected, nourished, supported, and treated with the best possible care. Brain health for seniors is especially important.
As we age, certain parts of the brain shrink, especially those that control learning and mental activities. In other brain regions, communication between neurons might not be as effective when compared to the brains of younger adults. While these changes are normal parts of aging, how can we improve brain health? There are steps seniors can take — a healthy diet, hydration, engagement with friends and family, the optimal amount of sleep — to maintain brain health. To help, we’ve outlined specific changes you can make that will lead to long-term brain health.
What Is Brain Health?
According to the National Institute on Aging, brain health refers to how well a person’s brain functions across several different areas:
- Cognitive ability — how well you think, learn and remember
- Motor function — how well you make and control movements, including balance
- Emotional function — how well you interpret and respond to emotions (both pleasant and unpleasant)
- Tactile function — how well you feel and respond to sensations of touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature
Growing research suggests that making small changes to your daily routine could help you function better for longer. These changes can also help decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s and other age-related memory loss.
Diet and the Brain
While eating a balanced diet is a great step toward achieving overall health, some researchers have suggested there are specific diets linked to improving brain function. If you’re interested in trying any of these, it’s best to first consult your doctor, especially if the recommendations differ significantly from your current typical diet.
Here are the diets and brief descriptions of each:
- Mediterranean diet
- Blue Zone diet
- The DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension)
- MIND diet
Mediterranean Diet or The Blue Zone Diet
The Mediterranean and Blue Zone diets are similar because they’re primarily plant-based. Meat is eaten minimally, 1-2 times a week, and it is suggested to completely avoid added sugar, refined grains, trans fats, processed meats, and highly processed foods. Both diets are inspired by parts of the world that have communities where people eat food in its most natural state, are more active, value social interaction, and tend to live longer. These lifestyles also focus on being less sedentary. Exercise is achieved through walking, chores, gardening, and even harvesting food.
The DASH diet was created to prevent high blood pressure, but it offers several health benefits. It mitigates sodium intake — the standard DASH diet encourages 2,300 mg or less per day. The lower-sodium DASH diet recommends no more than 1,500 mg per day.
This is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is great evidence that there are foods for brain health, potentially lowering cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet highlights vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, plant-based meals, and one glass of red wine per day.
Exercise and Fresh Air
Recent studies suggest that the activities you do to strengthen your body, heart, and lungs can also improve your brain health. The Cleveland Clinic explains why physical activity can benefit the brain by promoting cardiovascular health, improving blood flow to the brain, reducing inflammation, and lowering levels of stress hormones. To reap the brain benefits of exercise, experts suggest aiming for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as walking, biking, or swimming. In addition to exercise, the fresh air we breathe also impacts our brains. Dr. Lynda Shaw says that “20% of the oxygen we breathe is used solely by our brain. I spend at least 30 minutes a day outside and try to keep my window open at all times to allow a healthy flow of air through the room.”
Practicing new and challenging activities can help you build and preserve cognitive skills and mental acuity. Our brains can learn and grow even as we age, but to do so, they need stimulation. Training our brains includes practicing a new activity each day. According to Harvard Health, “Much research has found that creative outlets like painting, learning an instrument, writing, and learning a new language can improve cognitive function.” Here are a few tips to get you started in training your brain:
- Pick one new activity and devote your time and attention to it.
- Sign up for a class. This is a great way to learn the basics of the activity, especially if it requires special skills like reading music or painting.
- Schedule time for your activity. Time slips away fast!! It might be helpful to schedule practice time at the start of each week to ensure consistency.
Isolation and loneliness can have a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health. Research has shown that those who are socially isolated can experience cognitive decline, chronic illness, and depression at higher rates than those who maintain social connections. Volunteering, spending time with grandchildren, joining a club, or even attending an exercise class are all great opportunities for connecting with others. Even speaking with a loved one on the phone or through a video call can help combat isolation and loneliness.
Mental Health and Stress Management
Stress affects our minds and body. Not surprisingly, our brains suffer because of it. Stress raises the level of cortisol in our bodies, which may impair thinking and memory. Stress presents in other harmful ways: You may drink more, overeat, under-eat, and decide not to exercise. Any of these stress indicators takes a toll.
A Good Night’s Sleep
Good sleep is beneficial for your brain, as it needs time to recharge and flush out toxins during sleep. Brain and Life Magazine mentions recent research that “ongoing sleep deficits could take a considerable toll on the brain…quality sleep is critical to cognitive function and studies show sleep deprivation hinders learning, impairs cognitive performance, and slows reaction time – like being intoxicated without the buzz.”
Supporting Brain Health at Inspīr
Caring for the brain is important ant any age. At Inspīr we believe that what’s good for the brain is also good for the mind, body, and soul. We offer lifelong learning classes, cognitively stimulating activities, brain-healthy good, and fitness classes to keep the neurons active and to maximize brain function.