Maintaining a Healthy Brain

Redmond Senior Center program coordinator Karen Phillips
demonstrates use of their outdoor elliptical trainer.

When we think about staying fit, we generally think about going to the gym and exercising. Seldom do we include keeping our brain active as part of staying fit. It is important to recognize that our brain plays a critical role in everything we do: thinking, feeling, remembering, working, exercising, playing, and even sleeping.

The good news is that scientific evidence suggests there are steps we can take to help keep our brain healthier as we age.

Following is a list of lifestyle changes recommended by the Alzheimer's Association and Centers for Disease Control to keep our brain active and healthy.

Stay physically active

Cardiovascular exercise maintains good blood flow to the brain as well as encouraging new brain cell development. Exercise reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes. Reducing these risks protects the brain against those risk factors for Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Most people don't like to exercise due to the time commitment and physical intensity. Fortunately, our daily exercise does not have to be strenuous or even require a major time commitment. It is most effective when done regularly and in combination with a brain-healthy diet, mental activity and social interaction.

Participating in walking, bicycling, gardening, sitting exercises, tai chi, yoga and other activities for about 30 minutes every day gets the body moving and the heart pumping.

Adopt a brain-healthy diet

A low-fat, low-cholesterol diet that is rich in dark vegetables and fruits and contains antioxidants is advisable to help protect brain cells and reduce the risk for stroke and brain cell damage.

In general, dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally-occurring antioxidants, which protect the brain. Such vegetables include kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beets, red bell pepper, onion, corn, and eggplant. Fruits with high antioxidant levels include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, and cherries.

Consume coldwater fish like halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna because they contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids that are great for the brain.

Some nuts may also be a useful part of your diet. Almonds, pecans and walnuts are a good source of vitamin E and antioxidants.

Remain socially active

Research shows that people who regularly engage in social interaction maintain their brain vitality. One study reported that leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia. In a study of 800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more physically active, more mentally active, or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. Most importantly, those who combined these activities did even better.

Other research found that sports, cultural activities, emotional support, and close personal relationships together appear to have a protective effect against dementia.

It is important to:

  • Stay active in the workplace.
  • Volunteer in community groups and causes.
  • Join bridge clubs, square dancing clubs or other social groups.
  • Travel.

Stay mentally active

Our brain loses agility as we get older—it can deteriorate even more if we don't take care of it. Mentally stimulating activities strengthen brain cells and the connections between them, and may even create new nerve cells.

Start with something small like a daily walk, taking a different route as often as possible.

Keep your brain active every day:

  • Stay curious and involved—commit to lifelong learning.
  • Read, write, work crossword or other puzzles.
  • Attend lectures and plays.
  • Enroll in courses at your local adult education center, community college, or other community group.
  • Play games and computer games.
  • Garden.
  • Try memory exercises.

Mental decline as we age appears to be largely due to altered connections among brain cells. Fortunately, research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality by generating new brain cells. Choosing a multi-dimensional approach to brain health will yield the best results as the combination of physical and mental activity with social engagement, and a brain-healthy diet is more effective than any of these factors alone.

—Janet Ceballos, Aging and Disability Services