Six Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy and Fit

Did you ever forget where you put your car keys? Or walk to a closet and then not remember what you were looking for? These memory lapses can make anyone, especially older adults, believe that they are developing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or any of the dozens of other forms of dementia. And that can be scary.

When it comes to brain fitness, there’s good news and better news. The good news is: Dementia is not the natural result of aging. It’s a disease, like diabetes or arthritis. Not every old person gets it. The better news is: You can keep your brain healthy by increasing and strengthening the number of nerve and blood vessel “highways” in your head. This way, you can minimize the effects of a dementia, should you develop it.

So what might cause those lapses when we misplace our car keys or walk to a closet? Fatigue, bad nutrition, stress. In short, not keeping our brains fit. Just like our bodies, our brains can become inflexible without daily stretching, weak without daily strength training, and tired without daily cardio endurance exercise. The “highways” form road blockages or fall into disrepair. So, if you want to keep your brain healthy and fit, try these half-dozen tips:

1. Get moving!

Doing cardio activities lowers your blood pressure by opening up vessels that carry blood, oxygen, and nutrients to your brain cells. Include a few deep breaths that make your lower belly expand and contract and you’re boosting that blood flow while toning your lungs. Finally, include some balancing activities, such as standing on one foot or walking on uneven pavement. By challenging your sense of balance, you speed up the signal pathways from your inner ears to your brain, which can help you prevent falls.

2. Eat brain-healthy foods.

Include in your daily diet any foods that contain antioxidants (blueberries are a great choice) and Omega-3 fats (found in oily fish such as salmon) and that release the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain (dark chocolate, yes!). These categories of foods will help boost your learning ability and your memory.

3. Push the envelope.

Try something new, such as learning to speak a foreign language, play an instrument, or drive different routes to and from the store. Whatever activity you choose, increase your level of challenge each time you repeat it. Each time you raise the bar on a task, you create or strengthen a neural roadway in your brain.

4. Be a switch-hitter.

Are you a righty? Try using your left hand to do a familiar task. (Vice-versa for lefties.) Remember, your brain has two sides. By doing things with your non-dominant hand, you surprise your brain and exercise the half that wouldn’t be engaged otherwise. It’s also a good idea to do complex tasks that make you use both sides of your brain at once. Any activity that requires you to analyze, revise, or categorize is a good brain-builder.

5. Make the most of a memory.

Do something that will help you not only remember it, but think about it in a different or deeper way. Write about your experience in a journal. Maybe combine it with some photos and other mementos to form a scrapbook. Or write to someone telling what you saw, did, and felt. All of these activities form more connections in your brain’s memory center.

6. Catch enough Zs.

It’s a scientific fact that getting adequate sleep each night is as important to your brain as eating and exercising. That’s the time when your brain sends out hormones that help repair your body from the challenges and stresses of the day. It’s also when you dream. Dreaming is your brain’s way of making sense of the new information and experiences it gathered that day by integrating them with what you already know. How much sleep do you need? Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you feel tired instead of refreshed when you wake up, chances are you didn’t get enough sleep.

So there you have it –– six ways to keep your brain healthy and fit. Follow these tips and you might find you’re not losing those car keys so often and you might actually remember why you went to the closet in the first place!

Jeanette Leardi is a community educator to older adults, health-care practitioners, and the general public on older adult issues.
You can reach her at jleardi@mindspring.com.

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