Lifestyle Changes Can Guard Against Dementia.
A poll taken in the UK shows that two thirds of people over the age of 50 fear they will develop dementia, while just one in ten said they were frightened about getting cancer.
These statistics don’t surprise me, since I would be one of the two thirds in that poll. The number of times I walk into a room and forgot why I’m there seems to increase every year. I’ve often thought, “I hope I’m not getting Alzheimer’s.”
Information overload or signs of early dementia?
Normal brains can hold five to eight pieces of information in an area known as working memory. Working memory helps you manage information for a short time like a mental sticky note. It holds information on the front of your mind for immediate use. And those five to eight pieces of information in working memory are constantly changing.
You’ve probably noticed if something interrupts what you’re doing, you automatically replace information in working memory with new information. Consider a real life example, you see a commercial for coffee and your brain says, “Yum, let’s make a cup of coffee”. You move toward the kitchen with 5-8 pieces of information in your working memory. However, on the way to the kitchen, someone asks you a question. You realize the dog needs to go out; the phone rings and you answer it. Each of these new tasks replaces the previous information you had on the front of your mind. Coffee gets kicked out of working memory, but it’s not permanently lost. In a healthy brain, the information is simply moved to a different storage file in short term memory. You’ll need a reminder to retrieve the idea and bring it back to working memory. We all know the feeling when we retrace our steps to the living room and suddenly remember, “Wait! I forgot to get my coffee.”
Is this the onset of dementia? Probably not, since you can retrieve the information from short term memory – “Oh yeah, I was going to make coffee.” A dementia sufferer may not have that recall due to early losses in short term memory. When the commercial comes on again, the thought of getting coffee is completely new for the person with memory loss because the information never got filed in short term memory.
Is there anything you can do to guard against dementia? Research shows the answer is yes. You can work to control some of the risk factors:
- Uncontrolled Blood Pressure
- Uncontrolled Sugar Problems
- High Cholesterol
- Being Overweight
- Bad Eating
- Not taking the time for the following: Doing, Thinking, Getting Out and Getting Together.
You can also use your brain to keep it fit. Just like heart and lung cells, brain cells can become more efficient with regular use. In addition to efficiency, the brain is said to have “plasticity” which means you can use your brain in new ways – literally reaching out to tap brain cells that haven’t been used. While you can’t grow another brain, you can tap the brain’s capacity with new and different experiences. In light of the controversy over the effectiveness of computer-based brain training programs, Dr. Lawrence Katz, an internationally recognized neurobiologist, explains that for an exercise to enhance brain fitness and function, it must be novel (unusual), complex, and engage several of your senses at once. Consider these simple, everyday ways to keep your brain fit at any age.
“TOP TEN” BRAIN EXERCISES TO MAINTAIN YOUR BRAIN
When doing these activities, start easy and upgrade the challenge as your brain fitness improves.
1. Reading. Reading works multiple areas of the brain including memory, language, and visual processing. Reading longer passages that require more than one sitting to finish provides the best brain exercise because it requires that you remember the story as you progress through the book or article. The content does not matter, and an upgrade to the exercise is reading more than one book at the same time.
2. Use your non-dominant hand. Your brain is wired to do activities automatically with the dominant side. When you switch hands to do a simple activity like brushing your teeth, your brain does a total reorganization of sensory and motor processing.
3. Keep a journal. This is a memory, language, and understanding exercise.
4. Do crossword puzzle. Working crossword puzzles taps into the visual/spatial component of our brain. It requires that you dig through your language files. Even if you think “I’m not good at those.” The challenge is not to do the most difficult puzzle. The challenge is in completing even an easy puzzle (there are puzzles for children that provide the same exercise). The brain becomes more efficient and active when you finally master the easy puzzle and upgrade slightly to the mid-grade.
5. Games with names and faces. This challenge helps because names are stored in one area of your brain, while faces are stored in another. To play this game, name all the characters on your favorite TV show. Now, name the actor/actress who plays those roles. Try to picture their faces. Or, name all the Johns, etc. you can think of, and try to picture their faces.
6. Increase your vocabulary for the fun of it. Many types of dementia will attack the language centers of the brain, and with more words, you will be able to communicate better.
7. Games of strategy. Any card games or other strategic games, Sudoku is a strategic game of numbers. This is an exercise that works many areas of the brain simultaneously. However, if you have played a regular game for years, challenge yourself to learn a new one.
8. Exercise your body. It is the recommendation from the National Alzheimer’s Association that a heart healthy diet and exercise program is also brain healthy. And for a good reason, exercise pushes oxygenated blood to your brain.
9. Learn a foreign language. This exercise can be done throughout your life. The challenge is not to become fluent over night! Your brain benefits from you knowing even a few word pairs i.e. water-aqua. The challenge is for your brain to make matches, so working abbreviations into text, email and written notes is helpful as well.
10. Learn to play a musical instrument. The whole brain is at work when you’re learning to play. Remember, the benefit is not received when you are an expert; it’s in the learning process. So, pick it up and try!
With thanks to my collaboration partner, Heather McKay of Partnerships for Health.
Heather is a licensed occupational therapist and dementia care specialist, consultant, and international trainer/speaker who is passionate about helping healthcare providers and the families of those with dementia to demystify dementia care.
Through her own diverse experience as a healthcare provider and leader, and family member of a beloved individual with dementia, Heather has developed an engaging, measurement-based model for relating to each patient in whatever season.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.