I work in Geriatric Mental Health. I see all kinds of people in my practice, and surprisingly I am rarely asked questions about preventative health measures when it comes to maintaining and improving brain health. One day I was asked by a man in his 80s, “How can I improve my short-term memory?”
I brought this question about brain health back to my team (which includes a psychiatrist, and an occupational therapist/clinician). Here is the latest advice that we are recommending. I didn’t want to keep it all to myself, so here it is:
1. Keep your body healthy. Your brain is an organ just like any other. Feed it nutritious foods (see the Mediterranean Diet for example), keep stress levels down, don’t smoke, limit alcohol, keep active (at least 30 minutes of exercise a day) and get an adequate amount of rest. Consider when you do something good for your body, you are doing it for your brain health, too.
2. Try practicing “mindfulness,” a nonjudgmental and present moment awareness way of being in the world. When you keep your mind focused on what your body is doing, it offers a sense of peace and relaxation. It connects the body to the mind. Instead of daydreaming while you wash the dishes, notice the feel of the warm water on your hands. The smell of the soap. The noise the dishes make. Google search “mindfulness” and see what the latest research is showing.
3. Try a “mindful” awareness practice like Tai Chi or Yoga. These exercises combine both exercise and mindfulness and are easily adapted to suit almost everyone.
4. Do novel things. Your mind needs to be challenged. Learning and doing new things is like exercising a muscle. If you want your muscles to grow, you need to add more resistance or weights. Similarly, your brain needs to be challenged in order to grow. Learn a new language. Take music lessons. Learn how to tango. Go back to school. Try something new.
5. Try a brain games and brain training programs like “Luminosity.” Do crossword puzzles or try Sudoku. “BrainyApps” and “Elevate” are applications you can get for your smartphone or tablet. Do a Google search on “brain training” or “brain games” and find something suited for you. For fun, try playing “Words With Friends,” a mobile app version of Scrabble.
I would add a few more things: Having a variety of social connections (all ages) and healthy relationships is very important. Taking care of ourselves helps us focus on what we need to do to keep healthy. Focusing on the health and well-being of others helps us feel good about the world and each other. Caregivers need to be mindful to ensure they take care of themselves, too, so they don’t burn out. Managing our chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure help reduce our likelihood of having a stroke.
No matter what your age, keeping active and living a healthy purposeful life helps us keep engaged and thriving.
Angela G. Gentile, M.S.W., R.S.W.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to replace the advice of your health care professional. Always consult your doctor before starting a new exercise regime.
Angela G. Gentile, M.S.W., R.S.W. is a clinician and older adult specialist who has more than 25 years of experience working with older adults and their families in a variety of capacities. She is currently employed as a Geriatric Mental Health Clinician and enjoys writing, traveling, photography and exploring what it means to age well. She is a realistic optimist who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba with her husband and two children.