Some things are inevitable as we grow older. Things like wrinkles and grey hair. There are other aspects of old age, however, that we can do something about. Things that are impacted to a greater extent by lifestyle choices and can help us to maintain a better quality of life for far longer.
You can help yourself keep those ‘senior moments’ to a minimum for a while yet if you understand what is involved in keeping your mind and brain healthy. We are not talking about serious forms of memory loss here such as Alzheimer’s disease but general cognitive decline.
An Owner’s Manual
If you are a regular reader of this website you will by now have read articles about the physiology of your brain – how your brain works to process, make and store memories. Learning about your body and how the different parts work gives you a better understanding of how to look after it and what happens when things go wrong. We aren’t born with an owner’s manual but thanks to modern medicine and research a lot more information is available to us about how our bodies work and what we can do to keep ourselves healthy.
Factors that Affect Brain Health and Memory
In today’s article we look at two factors that have a significant effect on brain health and memory as we age. They are poor blood circulation and stress. These are things that become problematic from middle age onwards and which we can, to some extent, do something about.
As you get older your arteries and capillaries become less flexible and can, in some cases, become clogged, restricting the flow of vital oxygen and nutrients to your brain. Worst case scenario, this can even lead to a stroke or vascular dementia. As the blood flow to your brain reduces, your neurons receive less life-sustaining support. Your blood brings not only the glucose which acts as fuel to your brain but also the amino acids that are synthesized into neurotransmitters.
Diet, Smoking and Drinking Alcohol
If you eat a diet high in saturated fats, smoke or drink – or all three – you may be sure that you are reducing blood flow to your brain. Other things, like ginkgo and, to a lesser extent, beetroot, actually improve blood flow to the brain and are often used as nutritional supplements targeting seniors concerned about memory loss.
A word of caution as you read this. If you are over 60 you may already be on blood thinners of some sort such as Warfarin or asprin, in which case be sure to avoid the popular brain supplement, ginkgo. This works by dilating blood vessels and could cause serious uncontrolled bleeding if combined with other things with the same action. If in doubt, check with your doctor first!
What You Can Do
Cleaning up your diet, giving up smoking and cutting back or giving up on alcohol consumption can all make a difference. If you live alone, something that happens to many people over 50 these days, you may find yourself slipping into poor eating habits because it is too much hassle to cook proper meals for one person. Try to get a grip on that before it seriously undermines your health.
Cut back on fast food, fried food and processed food and make sure that you have at least one proper meal a day that includes vegetables and fruit. Many stores have good salad and vegetable sections geared towards smaller households so you can buy portions of healthy options rather than having to buy whole heads of cabbage, lettuce and so on which may go to waste if you live alone. Frozen vegetables are also very convenient. Cooking a piece of chicken or fish for one person with accompanying vegetables does not need to be more complicated and time consuming than yet another pepperoni pizza from the freezer!
Stress and Exercise
One of the biggest game changers though is exercise. This is a case of what you CAN do rather than what you CAN’T do. Regular exercise improves cardio-vascular health and improves the elasticity of your arteries and capillaries. Exercise is also a good stress-reliever, working off pent up energy and anxiety.
Find a form of exercise that suits you and your general state of health so that you are motivated to do it. Even walking to the shops instead of driving makes a difference to the creeping tide of sedentary 21st century living. If joining the gym doesn’t appeal to you, how about dancing, swimming, cycling, gardening, golf, gardening or swimming?
Everyone knows the beneficial effects of having a dog in your senior years. If you are not allowed to keep pets where you live, how about joining a dog-walking group? This is where you walk other people’s dogs for them either because they are out at work all day or sometimes, even, to help refuge dogs get exercise and a better quality of life while waiting to be rehomed.
Uncontrolled stress aggravates this situation as it raises blood pressure and also stimulates the production of cortisol, your body’s stress hormone. This hormone dates back to our early human days of ‘fight or flight’. These days stress isn’t usually tied to sudden dramatic events that can be resolved by ‘fight or flight’ but is a steady build-up of tension and cortisol levels over time with no resolution.
Cortisol is particularly destructive to the brain and affects your ability to adjust to new learning and memory. Dendritic branching and axonal sprouting, which support new memories, are held back when your body has to deal with stress.
Learn relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation and use them. Take a walk in the park and smell the roses. Watching stuff grow can be incredibly relaxing.
Go to art galleries, museums and any other cultural venues available to you to give your brain new ideas to consider. Better still, take a friend so that you can discuss what you are looking at and exchange perspectives.
Avoid high stress job and domestic situations. Look for ways to reduce stress in your life. Write down all the things that are stressing you and make a plan to see which ones you can do something about. As they say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Is it really worth getting worked up over the fact that your 14 year old granddaughter has had her navel pierced? Probably not. Rather think about her good school reports and how pretty she is growing up to be. If your spouse is getting on your nerves, go for a walk or head for the kitchen and pummel some bread dough. There is no point in getting into arguments that raise your stress levels and don’t resolve situations.
Looking after yourself, physically and mentally, is crucial at any stage in life but in the senior years it really pays dividends. Ill health is not inevitable in old age and if something serious does strike, the fitter you are to start with the better you will be able to cope with it and the better the outcomes.