Previously, I’ve blogged about how to keep your brain healthy. Now, I’m revisiting that topic because recently I cared for my mom 24/7. She has Alzheimer’s. And I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects of cognitive decline.
My message today focuses on prevention, not fear. In the majority of cases, we can stay sharp as we age, even if we have a genetic predisposition to dementia. Regardless of age, it’s vitally important to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
Six Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy
Recent research indicates that the health of our gut microbiome is directly related to the health of our brain. What we eat, when we eat, and whether we prepare home-cooked meals are critical to optimal gut-brain health.
Let’s focus on “what we eat” for a moment. With worldwide Alzheimer’s numbers expected to triple by 2050, I’ve seen a concerted uptick in so-called brain foods and supplements. Please don’t waste your money and get sucked in by the marketing behind these products.
Instead, eat real whole foods that are as unprocessed as possible. Think colors of the rainbow when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Limit red meat, ultra-processed plant-based meat, cold cuts, sausages, and hot dogs. Snack on nuts instead of protein bars. Incorporate sources of omega 3s into your diet. Likewise, for whole grains and legumes. Remember the Blue Zones? Eat like the residents of those geographical locations, and you’ll be well on your way.
We all know that inactivity or sitting for long periods of time is unhealthy. Now, brain researchers believe that regular exercise results in increased cognitive fitness. It can be as easy as going outside for a brisk walk or hike several times each week. You’ll benefit from a natural dose of Vitamin D and some relaxing time in nature.
Here’s a side note about my mom. She sits all day because she has little to no energy. It’s almost impossible to get her to walk using her rollator. But one day I convinced mom that she needed to strengthen her leg muscles. And this is what I witnessed. At first, she hobbled. But after a few minutes, something interesting happened. Instead of moving her feet side-to-side, mom started to take normal strides, with one foot in front of the other.
While we can, we need to get off our butts. I can’t stress this enough. Because in the final stages of Alzheimer’s, a wheelchair is the mode of transport. Walking isn’t even an option.
3. Restorative Sleep
Restorative sleep is another component of how to keep your brain healthy. Researchers recommend at least 7-9 hours of good sleep nightly. Anything below 6 hours of sleep in midlife raises the risk of dementia by 30%, according to a 25-year study.
If you snore, it’s important to know the warning signs of sleep apnea and to receive treatment if necessary. Waking up several times during the night and being unable to fall back to sleep, or relying consistently on sleep aids, including melatonin, are red flags that require medical attention.
Another side note: While I cared for my mom, I suffered from serious sleep deprivation. Mom woke up several times nightly, and I woke up, too. The problem is that once I got up at 2 AM, I couldn’t fall back asleep. I tried to function on four hours of sleep. But after a few nights without restorative sleep, I felt my brain get foggy. It was alarming. It was my first taste of what it’s like to lose cognitive abilities, to not be super sharp.
4. Manage “Bad” Stress
Chronic stress wears us down, and it’s unhealthy. Uncovering the root cause of chronic stress is critical. For occasional stress, it’s important to downshift and take a break during the day. This self-care mentality helps to keep stressful events in check.
Full disclosure: I didn’t heed my own words about managing stress when I cared for my mom. And I paid the short-term price of frayed nerves when all of my destressing habits went out the window.
Two months earlier, my sister and I had moved mom to a senior community in Florida. It’s ten minutes away from my sister’s family. But after a UTI and hospital stay, mom’s health declined significantly. This forced me to re-evaluate her current living situation. I concluded that mom was no longer safe in her apartment. She needed 24/7 oversight. During the day, I stressed out about the possible options. At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I stressed out again. Bad stress became my constant, invisible companion. My stressful conundrum became the exact opposite of how to keep my brain healthy.
After four days and nights of little sleep and lots of stress, I made a heart-wrenching decision. To be safe 24/7, mom needed to move again. This time, to a memory care facility.
I wish I could say that making this difficult decision reduced my stress. It didn’t. Not immediately. I am slowly accepting mom’s downward decline.
Reducing bad stress takes time. In part, it’s tied to eating right, exercising, sleeping well, and getting support, whether it be professional help or the support of friends and family.
5. Maximize Social Connections and Community
Having a support system of friends and family provides the socialization necessary to enjoy life to its fullest. Loneliness and isolation shorten one’s life.
As you know, meaningful socialization is not the same as informal social media connections. Real support and real friendship are the product of hard work. And lots of time spent together filled with memorable experiences, heart-to-heart conversations, and heavy doses of laughter.
6. Challenge Your Brain
Be curious. Try new things. Travel to new places. Use your memory instead of your tech devices to remember lists or to do’s.
Each week, try to learn something new. Or take a class. Explore a different part of town. I’m working on this, too.
The great news is that you and I don’t have to suffer from Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline.
We have the tools to prevent it.
To start, embrace the tips I’ve outlined on how to keep your brain healthy.
And for added personal guidance on brain health, sign up for the Lady Moxy Brain Booster Plan.