Seniors spend a lot of time on their physical health and mobility, but too little time is spent on a senior’s brain health. Cognition and brain health are essential to help seniors lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and depression.
Proactive steps can help maintain and improve brain health for seniors.
Regular Health Screenings
A 2002 study from VA Boston Health Care System and Harvard Medical School (1) suggests that a mental health screening should be part of a senior’s annual checkup. The study included mental health outreach to a total of 316 veterans with an average age of 72.
The study found that a lot of participants were suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts and additional mental health issues.
Healthcare providers should be consulted with if there are issues with:
- Brain function
Medication side effects may be the cause of these brain-related conditions.
Physical Activity to Boost Mental Health
The University of Western Australia (2) conducted a review of physical activity and the mental health of seniors. The study notes that the world’s population is aging rapidly and that over 24% of Australians will be 65 years of age or older in the next 50 years.
Researchers note that physical activity was able to reduce the risk of disability, mortality and extend independent living.
Cognitive function was found to improve after a 10-week period when participants in a study walked or engaged in 45 minutes of exercise per day. The studies theorize that the improvement in cognitive function is due to an increase in oxygen in the blood.
Word fluency increased among male and female participants.
Physical activity was linked in numerous studies to lower levels of stress and depression.
The Alzheimer’s Society (3) reports that a study of over 2,000 men in Wales, over a 30-year period, showed that those who exercised and ate healthy were 60% less likely to suffer from dementia.
An additional eleven studies point to regular exercise as a way to reduce the risk of developing dementia by as much as 30%. Alzheimer’s disease risks fell by as much as 45% for participants of the study.
Physical activity should be a major consideration when trying to maintain or improve brain health for seniors. All seniors should consult with their physicians to develop a physical activity plan that is safe and effective based on their current health and physical ability.
Reduce Threats to Brain Health
The Brain Health as You Age Educator Guide (4), released by the ACL, NIH and CDC, outlines numerous facts about brain health for seniors. The guide mentions possible risks and threats to brain health, including:
- Alcohol consumption
- Insufficient sleep
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor diet
- Lack of social activity
Reducing or eliminating many of the items on this list can lead to a direct impact on brain health for seniors. Smoking or exposure to second-hand smoking reduces blood flow circulation, increases the risk of lung and heart diseases, and also increases your risk of stroke.
Alcohol has been shown to slow the communication of brain cells, even when moderate use was experienced. Long-term consumption, especially in seniors, can lead to long-term memory and emotional impairment.
Medications may also interact with the alcohol, leading to a higher risk of drowsiness and dizziness.
Abstaining from alcohol is advised.
Reducing the threats to brain health is a proactive measure that all seniors can take to keep their memory and cognition levels high.
Maintain an Active Mind
Sustained engagement is crucial for an active mind, according to one study (5) from the University of Texas at Dallas. Researchers wanted to test the theory that sustained mental engagement, via learning new skills, was able to improve:
- Working memory
- Episodic memory
Meaningful activities provided the best benefits and were able to improve the participant’s thinking ability. When compared to participants that only socialized, it was found that taking up new hobbies was able to improve memory.
Participants that engaged in digital photography and even quilting had higher levels of memory improvement than those that socialized only.
Researchers speculate that the stimulating activity of a new hobby is able to create a “cognitive reserve” that can combat brain changes and health conditions that impact the brain the most.
Memory training was part of an additional study (6) that include all healthy adults over the age of 65. Participants in the study engaged in 10 sessions of:
- Memory training
- Processing speed training
- Reasoning training
Interestingly, the study showed that participants were able to enjoy long lasting effects that lasted for over 10 years. Mental training and keeping an active mind are some of the easiest ways to maintain and improve brain function as a person enters their senior years.
Daily mental activities are recommended and can include learning a new skill or language. These activities can be combined with social activities in the future for even more benefits.
Reduce Stress Levels
Stress has a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical health. One study (7) from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences found that stress plays a major role in a person’s health-related quality of life.
The cross-sectional study included adults between the ages of 50 and 85.
All adults in the study were deemed healthy and were screened for depressive symptoms and the severity of the depression. The study found that a person’s mental health was directly linked to the stress they were under.
Life stress was found to have a negative impact on mental and physical health.
Mindfulness was found to have a positive impact on mental health, with all adults who practiced mindfulness having better overall mental health. Researchers note that seniors who have the highest level of stress may benefit more from mindfulness meditation training under the guidance of a professional.
Seniors that want to maintain or improve their mental health can work proactively to stave off mental decline, depression and even dementia. Maintaining a healthy weight, a good diet and keeping the mind engaged are some of the easiest methods of keeping the brain healthy.
- Davis, M. J., Moye, J., & Karel, M. J. (2002). Mental Health Screening of Older Adults in Primary Care. Journal of mental health and aging, 8(2), 139–149. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4878701/
- Lautenschlager, N. T., Almeida, O. P., Flicker, L., & Janca, A. (2004). Can physical activity improve the mental health of older adults?. Annals of general hospital psychiatry, 3(1), 12. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2832-3-12
- Physical exercise and dementia. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention/physical-exercise
- Brain Health as You Age Educator Guide. (2014). Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/news%202016-10/BrainHealthEducatorGuide.pdf
- Park, D. C., Lodi-Smith, J., Drew, L., Haber, S., Hebrank, A., Bischof, G. N., & Aamodt, W. (2014). The impact of sustained engagement on cognitive function in older adults: the Synapse Project. Psychological science, 25(1), 103–112. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613499592
- Tennstedt, S. L., & Unverzagt, F. W. (2013). The ACTIVE study: study overview and major findings. Journal of aging and health, 25(8 Suppl), 3S–20S. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264313518133
- de Frias, C. M., & Whyne, E. (2015). Stress on health-related quality of life in older adults: the protective nature of mindfulness. Aging & mental health, 19(3), 201–206. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2014.924090