The money fears of retirees and pre-retirees grab most of the headlines. But what retirees are most likely to fear is becoming a burden on others and being unable to take care of themselves, especially because of reduced cognitive function. Yet, you really can help your brain remain fit and relatively young, reducing the risk of developing significant cognitive problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s no solid cure or even a preventive for Alzheimer’s and dementia, though research is well-funded and continuing. Yet, there are steps that are shown to reduce the risk of developing the cognitive diseases, and the earlier you start taking these steps, the more likely you are to be successful.
Physical exercise. Actions that help your body also help your brain. In fact, research shows that the risk factors for heart disease also are risk factors for cognitive disease. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are risk factors for Alzheimer’s, in addition to heart disease and strokes. The good news is that studies show that only six months of moderate exercise can alter brain activity and improve cognitive functioning.
Eating well. This is another area where what’s good for your heart also is good for your brain. Diets that are plantbased and high in fish consumption reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. The Mediterranean diet is widely recommended as a way to improve both physical and mental health. Another good step is to increase consumptions of food with antioxidants, such as berries, raisins, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables.
It is best to receive your nutrition through food, unless you already have good eating habits and have a measured deficiency in one or more nutrients. Dietary supplements haven’t been shown to increase brain fitness.
Cognitive exercise. This is an area in which it is important to know the latest research. Many people believe that simply staying mentally active improves cognitive activity and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. They spend time doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku and similar activities.
Researchers now believe that brain function and fitness are improved best through new activities and knowledge. To maximize brain fitness, varying your routines and learning new things is better than simply doing things to keep your brain busy. Go to classes, develop new hobbies, put yourself in new situations and increase the complexity of the activities you do. You don’t need to make drastic changes. If you do crossword puzzles, you can switch to Sudoku for a while and then later to something else. Any change or variation is better than no change.
Lifestyle. Anything that keeps you active and engaged and reduces stress should improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive disease. Being socially engaged is important. Studies show brain health is improved by simple steps such as volunteering a few hours each week or taking dance classes. Anything that includes interaction with others is helpful, and if you learn something new in the process, that’s even better.
Stress tends to damage both brain function and heart function. So, actions to reduce stress improve both brain and heart health. Physical activity is one way to reduce stress, so it has the dual benefit of improving brain function and reducing stress. Also consider meditation, wellness classes and other stress-reduction techniques.
There are free tests online that measure your cognitive functions. Each takes 15 to 20 minutes and helps determine if your memory problems are the result of normal aging or something else. One test is at www.cogniciti.com. Another is at cft. foodforthebrain.org.
One source for more about brain fitness and the latest research can be found at www.baycrest.org. Maintaining your brain fitness and keeping your brain young means, among other things, that you’ll make better financial decisions and maintain your financial independence.