Mind games help with long-term brain health

Mind Games – Significance of Lifestyle Interventions to Prevent Cognitive Decline

Humans have long been looking for the fountain of youth. Medical advances mean that most of us can expect to live for a long time. But how we live is an important component of successful aging. Originally published in June, Mind Games is an essay that explores the current understanding of best practices for maintaining a healthy brain as we age.

With my first book coming out in the fall, I am paying more attention to bookstores. I’m finding an increasing number of titles related to aging. It’s probably not surprising as the bulge of baby boomers – the oldest of whom are now in their mid-70s – are looking to successfully age, where a longer life span is matched with a correspondingly long wealth span and health span.

A number of these books focus on brain health. It makes sense as, according to one prominent researcher, Alzheimer’s is the most feared disease, even more than cancer. The loss of independence is devastating and requires comprehensive assistance to manage life. The burden on caregivers, often a spouse or family, can be overwhelming, too. A long life span and wealth span may be of little use if health deteriorates significantly.

It’s no surprise that the recent approval of Aduhelm, Biogen’s new drug for Alzheimer’s, has received significant attention. Its impact could be transformational for millions of people, perhaps with a greater impact on society than the vaccines produced to combat COVID-19. While critics point to scant evidence of its impact on the disease, if successful, it could usher in a new wave of effective innovations to fight cognitive decline.

“We may be soon entering an era without dementia. It could arguably be just as significant as a world without cancer. Such a milestone would be one of mankind’s great achievements.”

Significance of Lifestyle Interventions to Prevent Cognitive Decline

The good news is that many of us can take measures to prevent or delay cognitive decline without relying on a pill. A range of lifestyle interventions can reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment, characterized as problems with memory, language, thinking or judgment, as well as the risk of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s. Mild cognitive impairment is often a precursor to dementia.

Diet

We are learning more about the role of a healthy diet to help prevent dementia. The MIND diet, which is a variant of the Mediterranean Diet, focuses on whole grains, berries, green, leafy vegetables, other vegetables, olive oil, poultry and fish. Researchers have found that strict adherence to the MIND diet for older adults resulted in about a 50% decrease in Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Even more encouraging is that you don’t have to be rigorous in adhering to the diet to experience a positive impact. Simply eating fish once a week and incorporating greens into a meal each day could be an achievable goal that makes a difference.

Exercise

Scientists are still determining the causes of mild cognitive impairment, but some evidence suggests that a reduction in blood flow to the brain can be a factor. Regular exercise amplifies the healthy flow of blood to the brain while exercising and afterwards. Recent studies show that regular brisk walking is particularly effective in helping older adults with mild cognitive impairment. As last month’s blog emphasized, it’s valuable to move regularly, even if the measures are as simple as taking stairs or parking farther away when shopping or commuting.

Social Connection

The impact of loneliness has been well-documented: it has been found to be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can increase the risk of premature death by as much as 30%. But loneliness is particularly harmful to the brain. Studies have shown that loneliness can increase risks of dementia by 26% and mild cognitive impairment by 105%. Regularly reaching out to friends, whether they live close by or far away, could have a greater impact on your brain health than you realize.

Sleep

Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. Sleep helps cement positive memories, mollify painful ones, and meld past and present knowledge, inspiring creativity. Conversely, insufficient sleep wreaks havoc. Insufficient sleep, or routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night, increases the odds of dementia. As we age, we tend to sleep less efficiently and wake up earlier, so it is important to go to bed earlier.

Hearing

Hearing loss has been shown to be a factor in cognitive loss and may also be one of the biggest potentially reversible factors. Hearing loss for a long period causes shrinkage to areas of the brain associated with memory. Proper diagnosis of hearing loss is important, as are interventions such as hearing aids.

Don’t Forget the Role of Place

Place has important direct and indirect impact on our brain health. Some places are objectively poor for our cognitive health. One study found that living near major roads is linked to an increased risk of neurological diseases, including dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis. It is believed to be caused by excessive exposure to air pollution and the incessant noise of vehicles.

Place also has an indirect role, by nudging us to healthy lifestyles. A pervasive culture that values healthy eating makes it easier to eat healthy; environments that are conducive to exercise embedded in the normal course of life are beneficial; areas that promote social connection amongst neighbors can help stave off social isolation and loneliness.

An Era Without Dementia

With advances on various fronts, we may be soon entering an era without dementia. It could arguably be just as significant as a world without cancer. Such a milestone would be one of mankind’s great achievements. As Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, Director of the Neurocognitive Disorders Program at Duke University School of Medicine and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Action Plan, says, “It’s a hopeful time.”

But, even if Biogen’s Aduhelm is unsuccessful, we can be hopeful, because the right mix of diet, exercise, social connection, sleep and hearing may just be the antidote we need to keep our minds strong. And don’t forget the role of place, the foundation that helps pull it all together.


Mind Games was originally published on SmartLiving 360.

Place plays a significant yet often unacknowledged role in health and happiness. Ryan Frederick, CEO of SmartLiving 360 and a Nexus Insights Fellow is the author of the upcoming book Right Time, Right Place, in which he explores more deeply the idea that where you live matters enormously – especially during the second half of your life.

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Dr. Sara Zeff Geber on Senior Isolation and Solo Aging

Strategies for reducing isolation among solo agers – an interview with Sara Zeff Geber

Sara Zeff Geber, an expert in solo aging and a Nexus Insights Fellow, noticed something interesting. A lot of Baby Boomers were spending a lot of time, resources, and money taking care of their aging parents. And it occurred to her to wonder, for childless seniors like herself, “Who’s going to do that for us?” 

That question launched a new line of research for her, and ultimately led to her book, Essential Retirement Planning for Solo Agers.

Zeff Geber was interviewed recently by Dr. Namrata Bagaria and Dr. Paul Merkley of Seniors Junction on their podcast “Ending Seniors’ Isolation, One Conversation at a Time.” The two asked Zeff Geber for her insights into reducing isolation and loneliness for solo agers.

Among the many insights she shared:

  • Solo aging is becoming more common. “Almost 20% of Baby Boomer women didn’t have kids.”
  • Everyone, even married couples, should plan as if they will be solo agers. “One spouse will almost always pre-decease the other, and you don’t have a crystal ball.” 
  • “The research shows that isolation and loneliness are more deadly to us than 15 cigarettes a day,” said Zeff Geber. The most important thing, she suggested, is to build and maintain a social network. 
  • As Bagaria points out, “Paul and I have learned on our journey that some people are naturally proactive about connecting and building a network and some have to pick up that skill.” Said Zeff Geber, “Learn to be a joiner; find a group that interests you; it could be a golf club, a book club, a dog-lovers group, or a similar-minded group at your church or synagogue”

Listen to the full podcast.

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Dr. Jacquelyn Kung on The Main Thing podcast

Aging Into Happiness – Dr. Jacquelyn Kung 

“We get happier as we get older,” said Dr. Jacquelyn Kung, CEO of Activated Insights, and a Nexus Insights Fellow. Kung was recently interviewed by Skip Lineberg, host of The Main Thing Podcast, about elder care, and her passion to improve the aging experience.

The main thing I’ve learned in my lifetime so far is that getting older is what you make of it. And I see it as full of good news,” said Kung. Research from the University of Chicago shows that from the 50s onwards, into the 80s, happiness increases. “Socially, we get happier as we get older, and the research shows that.” 

Mentally, people do lose recall memory, which allows them to remember particular words, or people’s names, “That does go out the window when we age,” she said. Recognition memory, however, remembering faces or the situations we’ve been in together, stays pretty constant through life.

As for physical decline, Kung said that a lot of people think of aging and physical decline as synonymous. “If we don’t stay physically active, then we do physically decline. But when we stay active, walking or exercising, there isn’t that physical decline as much as we think.”

“Getting older is what you make of it. And I see it as full of good news.”

Kung said that her passion for working in aging services began when she was a child, living across the street from a nursing home. “There were lots of people sitting around in their wheelchairs, waiting for people to come to visit them, and I realized I could help.” She began by volunteering in that nursing home. Over the course of her career, she continues to see many ways to help. “What I’ve learned since then is that there are huge opportunities to improve aging in the US.”

Kung’s company, Activated Insights, is a technology company that supports better employee and customer experiences for aging service providers. It provides intelligence, services, and insights to people who run assisted living communities. “If you’re not happy with your score in one place or another,” said Kung, “we have a set of software tools to help you get better.”

Listen to the podcast:

Dr. Jacquelyn Kung has worked in senior care for nearly 30 years, first as a nursing home volunteer then caregiver. Her team now works tirelessly to bring innovation and ideas to Activated Insights’s 4,000 partner locations. Dr. Kung is the CEO of the Senior Care Group at Activated Insights, a Great Place to Work Company.

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