While you’re considering how your eyesight’s going to fare in your latter years, spare a thought for your poor old brain too. Losing your ability to think clearly could have a significant impact on your quality of life and ability to look after yourself. Follow this advice to help keep your brain in tip-top shape as you get older.
Like many other age-related health problems, the cognitive decline that’s often associated with old age is affected by our diet and lifestyle habits throughout life.
To help maintain cognitive function – good memory and the ability to reason and think clearly using both abstract thought and logic – consider the following aspects of your lifestyle.
The health of your cardiovascular system, and specifically your blood pressure and your cholesterol level, give an indication of what your brain health will be like as you get older. Having either high blood pressure or high cholesterol during middle age that’s not appropriately controlled could increase your risk of developing dementia later. Conversely, having low blood pressure in older age is also a risk factor. Regardless of your age, it’s important to have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly and to follow the advice of your healthcare professional.
Being diabetic or pre-diabetic (for example having insulin resistance or glucose intolerance) is another risk factor for cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As with blood pressure and cholesterol, those whose diabetes is not appropriately controlled appear to be at greatest risk. In part, this may be due to the negative effects that blood sugar problems have on the blood vessels, as healthy cerebral blood flow is required for optimal brain function
Being obese is also a risk factor for dementia, and although it hasn’t been established whether reducing your weight will also reduce your risk, if you’re obese (having a body mass index, BMI, greater than 30), it’s well worth getting your weight down, because your health could benefit in numerous ways, and at the very least dropping those excess kilos will help to reduce your risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Regular exercise helps lower the risk of dementia and aids the maintenance of cognitive function. Aside from helping to keep you at a healthy body weight, the benefits of regular exercise may be due to its effects on heart health, improved blood flow to the brain, and enhanced maintenance of nerve cells and brain volume. It’s never too early or too late to implement a regular exercise routine either; being an exerciser during mid-life could reduce your dementia risk by more than 50 per cent, while for those over 65 years of age, exercising at least three times a week reduces dementia risk by more than a third. If you think your memory is getting a bit rusty, up your activity levels – it might just help!
For optimal brain health, your diet needs to include plenty of antioxidants, vitamins and healthy sources of fat. Rather than trying to get your head around all the different nutrients that can influence dementia risk, one recommendation is to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in antioxidants, healthy fats (such as omega-3s from fish and omega-9s from extra virgin olive oil), fibre and fruit and vegetables. At the same time, minimise your intake of saturated fats (largely found in meat and full-fat dairy foods). As well as helping to reduce your dementia risk, this will help to maintain your heart health.
A number of herbal medicines have traditionally been used to help maintain cognitive functions and act as memory tonics. Key herbs to consider include:
Ginkgo, which in clinical studies has been shown to help cognitive function and memory in healthy people as well as those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Spanish sage, which has traditionally been used as a memory tonic, and may also have the ability to boost your moods and induce a sense of calmness
Brahmi, which has traditionally been used as a nervous system tonic and to revitalise the intellect and memory. It may also enhance learning capacity
Korean ginseng, most famous as an energy tonic and for its ability to help the body cope with stress, Korean ginseng can also help improve concentration and mental focus
Smoking could increase your risk of developing dementia by as much as 80 per cent, so if you’re serious about keeping your faculties as you get older, it’s time to quit.
The phrase ‘Use it or lose it’ has never been more poignant. Research suggests that people who regularly engage in mentally challenging and stimulating activities (such as crosswords, sudoku puzzles and studying a foreign language) are less likely to be affected by cognitive decline as they get older. It appears that regularly exercising your grey matter helps make your brain cells more efficient, and develops the connections between them.
Similarly, having strong social connections could help keep your brain healthy, so make an effort to keep in touch with your loved ones and participate in community activities.
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