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Evaluate your lifestyle in light of Brain Awareness Month

The proportion of people with Alzheimer's dementia increases dramatically with age. Five percent of 65- to 74-year-olds, 13.1 percent of 75- to 84-year-olds and 33.3 percent of 85-year-olds and older suffer from Alzheimer's dementia (March 14, 2023)

Florida has the second highest number of Alzheimer's patients in the country – an estimated 12.5% ​​of Floridians age 65 and older (579,900 people) suffer from the disease, according to a study published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia (July 31, 2023).

Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month is an opportunity to share facts about Alzheimer's disease and other dementias that affect the brain.

Today's column provides an overview of cognitive health and older adults, with information from the National Institute on Aging. An upcoming column will provide more detailed information on dementia.

Links to additional reference and resource information are provided at the end of the column.

Cognitive health — the ability to think clearly, learn, and remember — is an important part of carrying out everyday activities. Cognitive health is just one aspect of overall brain health.

What is brain health?

Brain health refers to how well a person's brain functions in several areas. Aspects of brain health include:

  • Cognitive health – how well you think, learn and remember
  • Motor function – how well you perform and control movements, including balance
  • Emotional function – how well you interpret and respond to emotions (both pleasant and unpleasant)
  • Tactile function – how well you sense and respond to touch sensations – including pressure, pain and temperature

Brain health can be affected by age-related changes in the brain, injuries such as stroke or traumatic brain injury, mood disorders such as depression, substance abuse or addiction, and diseases such as Alzheimer's. While some factors that affect brain health cannot be changed, there are many lifestyle changes that could make a difference.

A growing body of scientific research suggests that the following steps are linked to cognitive health. Small changes can really add up: making these a part of your routine can help you function better. These include the following areas:

• Take care of your physical health• Manage high blood pressure• Eat a healthy diet• Be physically active• Keep your mind active• Stay connected with social activities• Manage stress• Reduce risks to cognitive health

A combination of these healthy lifestyles can potentially have a positive effect on the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Take care of your physical health

• Get recommended health screenings. • Treat chronic health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and high cholesterol. • Talk to your doctor about the medications you take and possible side effects on memory, sleep and brain function. • Reduce your risk of brain injury from falls and other accidents. • Limit your alcohol consumption (some medications can be dangerous when combined with alcohol). • Quit smoking if you currently smoke. Also avoid other nicotine-containing products such as chewing tobacco. • Get enough sleep, generally seven to eight hours a night.

Dealing with high blood pressure

Preventing or controlling high blood pressure not only helps your heart, it can help your brain too. Decades of observational studies have shown that having high blood pressure in midlife—between your 40s and early 60s—increases your risk of cognitive decline later in life.

In addition, the SPRIN-MIND study, a nationwide clinical trial, showed that a large reduction in blood pressure (even below the previous standard target of 140 for systolic blood pressure) reduces the risk of mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for dementia.

Eating healthy food

A healthy diet can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes. It can also help keep your brain healthy.

In general, a healthy diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. You should also limit solid fats, sugars and salt. Be sure to control portion sizes and drink plenty of water and other fluids.

Researchers have developed and are currently testing another diet: MIND, a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). According to observational studies of more than 900 older people without dementia, strict adherence to the MIND diet was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease and slower cognitive decline.

For more information on nutrition and Alzheimer's disease, see the following link: What do we know about nutrition and the prevention of Alzheimer's disease? | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)

Be physically active

Being physically active – through regular exercise, housework or other activities – has many benefits. It can help you:

  • Maintain and improve your strength
  • Have more energy
  • Improve your balance
  • Prevent or delay heart disease, diabetes and other problems
  • Brighten your mood and reduce depression

Federal guidelines recommend that all adults get at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of physical activity each week. Walking is a good place to start. You can also join programs that teach you how to exercise safely and avoid falls that can lead to brain and other injuries. Talk to your doctor if you haven't been active before and want to start a vigorous exercise program.

Keep your mind active

Mental engagement can have positive effects on the brain. People who engage in personally meaningful activities, such as volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier. Learning new skills can also improve your thinking ability.

For more information, visit nia.nih.gov.

Stay connected with social activities

Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated and more connected to the world around you. Participating in social activities can lower the risk of some health problems and improve well-being.

A wealth of information can be found on the Tallahassee Senior Center website: talgov.com.

Coping with stress

Stress is a natural part of life. Short-term stress can even focus our thoughts and motivate us to act.

However, over time, chronic stress can lead to brain changes and memory problems and increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.

There are many things you can do to manage stress and develop the ability to recover from stressful situations: • Exercise regularly. • Write in a journal. • Try relaxation techniques (such as mindfulness). • Stay positive: let go of resentment or things that are outside of your control, practice gratitude, or stop to enjoy the simple things, like the comfort of a cup of tea or the beauty of a sunrise.

Reduce risks to cognitive health

Genetic factors are passed down (inherited) from parent to child and cannot be controlled. However, many environmental and lifestyle factors can be changed or controlled to lower your risk. These factors include:

• Some physical and mental health problems, such as high blood pressure or depression

• Brain injuries, e.g. from falls or accidents• Certain medications or improper use of medications• Lack of physical activity• Poor diet• Smoking• Excessive alcohol consumption• Sleep problems• Social isolation and loneliness

By taking steps now to reduce your risk of cognitive decline, you will help maintain your cognitive health in the future.

Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a registered dietitian for over 35 years and holds graduate degrees in nutrition and public health from Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.

Anna Harden

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