Losing cognitive functions are a normal part of aging.
An 80-year-old may not remember as sharply as a 20-year-old, but doctors from South Florida have some advice on how to keep the brain sharp and boast mental capabilities.
From exercise and diet to stress reduction, here are some ways to keep the cerebrum young and functioning well.
Studies have shown that physical activity and exercise are associated with less cognitive decline as you age.
A recent observational study published in the American Academy of Neurology asked a group of individuals to describe their physical activity. The people in this group took a brain MRI and did cognitive testing throughout the years.
“Essentially people who recorded doing moderate to heavy physical activity actually had better cognitive performance than people who recorded doing light or no activity,” said Dr. Clinton Wright, scientific director for the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and one of the doctors who conducted the study.
Wright, an associate professor at the medical school, notes that observational studies don’t prove causation, but they do support the idea.
Dr. Deepa Sharma, family medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care, agrees.
“We know that when we exercise, blood pressure and blood flow increase everywhere in the body including the brain and we know that more blood means more energy and oxygen,” Sharma said.
“That makes our brain perform better and also helps make the rest of our body perform better.”
For older people who would like to become more active, Sharma recommends checking out the Go4Life Program from the National Institute of Aging at http://go4life.nia.nih.gov, which is designed to help people fit exercise and physical activity into their lives.
“Exercise helps increase the number of small blood vessels that bring blood to the brain and build the connection between the nerve cell and the brain, so those are important ways to keep your brain healthy,” Sharma said.
It is also important to keep vascular risk factors checked and well treated. People who smoke, have hypertension, diabetes or high cholesterol have shown more mental decline.
“Those things damage the brain, just like they damage the heart and the kidneys,” Wright said. “That damage to the brain has cognitive consequences.”
Keep your brain active
“You have to think of your brain like it’s a muscle,” said Dr. Philip Harvey, clinical psychologist at UHealth — the University of Miami Health System. “Exercise it.”
According to Harvey, mental activity is the single-biggest predictor of staying sharp as you get older.
“For example, if you retired at 55 and watch television all day, your brain at 60 will be like an active person’s brain at 80,” he said.
Harvey is one of the directors at the University of Miami’s Brain Fitness Pavilion, a center that opened in February 2014.
The Brain Fitness Pavilion features comprehensive cognitive programs, neuropsychological assessments, assessments of everyday living skills and a customized brain fitness training program. The center aims to train a person’s memory, concentration, thinking speed and social cognitive abilities like recognizing facial expressions.
This helps older people handle new challenges. Many elderly people must deal with technological difficulties like online banking and bill paying, managing medications through a website and viewing public transportation information.
Insurance companies typically do not pay for cognitive remediation therapy, so visits to the University of Miami’s Brain Fitness Pavilion usually come from a medical savings account or out-of-pocket. The pavilion offers brain training activities that can be done at home for a monthly subscription of $9 per month or a 30-minute coaching session on how to use the program at home for $125.
Doctors advise everyone to get enough sleep, avoid stress and eat a healthy diet. These factors strongly correlate with good brain function as one ages.
“If you can do all that stuff, that’s great,” Harvey said. “Do as much of it as possible, it’s better than not doing it at all.”
Harvey also recommends treating depression through antidepressant medication, stress reduction and psychotherapy.
“Depression is common in older people,” he said. “It’s also very treatable.”
The takeaway: What’s good for the heart is often good for the brain.