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Brain Essentials

The brain is arguably the most important organ of our body. Our brain health is critical to our overall well-being. It enables our thoughts, expressions, movement and moods. We can take care of our brain by making sure it gets the following necessary elements:

  • Nutrition (healthy food)
  • Hydration (water)
  • Oxygen
  • Blood Flow
  • Rest
  • Stimulation

Nutrition

In late life, we need to pay attention to how we fuel our body and brain, as there are normal changes that can impact nutrition and hydration. Some older adults, for example, lose their sense of thirst and taste for food. We have to be conscious of what we eat and drink. Metabolism often slows and may be affected by such things as medications and lack of activity. Older people who are inactive may be less hungry and eat less, therefore taking in less nutrients and calories to fuel the body. It is important to evaluate our nutritional status as we age and get professional input on diet issues as they relate to health concerns, lifestyle, disabilities, medications, activity level and desired goals.

Solid fats, refined sugars and salt should be limited. Whole grains, darkly colored fruits and vegetables and legumes are recommended as they are “nutritionally dense.” Smaller meals throughout the day, with a variety of foods from healthy food groups, are a good idea.

Some dietary researches stress the need for vitamin and mineral supplements in later years (for example, vitamins D, B-12 and calcium). However, the use of vitamins or supplements may impact health or other medications and their use should be discussed with your health care provider. It is wise to discuss ANY use of vitamins or supplements with a knowledgeable health care provider to ensure safety in light of existing health conditions or other medication usage (supplements can negatively interact with prescription medications).

Even if you feel comfortable with information you’ve found in books or over the internet, it is still important to consult with your health care provider or nutrition specialist when making a plan for better nutrition. Consulting a “geriatric” trained dietitian or nutrition specialist is a good idea for discussion of the specific needs of an individual given different lifestyle, health problems, disabilities, medications and activity level. Senior centers usually offer nutrition classes or access to dieticians who are trained in the nutritional needs of older bodies and people with particular health concerns. Cooking classes may be offered through senior centers, community education or health centers, grocery stores and even online. Cooking classes can be very fun and open a whole new world of delicious and nutritious options.

Hydration

Our bodies and brains MUST have water for proper function. In later life, dehydration is common because our sense of thirst is diminished and our body water content decreases.

Unfortunate outcomes of dehydration include:

  • Impaired cognition, confusion
  • Falls
  • Constipation
  • Agitation
  • Delirium
  • Hospitalization

Carrying water is an easy way for a person to remember to drink and keeping track of water intake everyday can prevent dehydration. This is a very easy strategy to keep our brains healthy.

Oxygen and Blood Flow

For our brains to function well, they must have adequate oxygen and blood flow. When people become more sedentary, the brain may lack these important elements and people may notice fatigue, difficulty focusing, dizziness, and low mood. Deep breathing exercises can help with oxygen and vigorous movement can help with blood flow. Exercise is a good way to promote oxygen and blood flow at the same time.

Exercise

The body, at any age, will benefit from movement and exercise. The benefits include; renewed energy, clearer thinking, improved sleep, stronger bones, greater flexibility, enhanced muscle strength, greater endurance, improved organ functions (i.e. heart and lung), improved immune functions and reduced tension.

Keys to exercise success include:

  • Choosing an activity that is enjoyable
  • Beginning slowly and pacing yourself
  • Joining a program or class where there is supervision, fun and support from others
  • Picking an exercise buddy for company and motivation
  • Keeping an exercise journal to record successes
  • Celebrating successes in healthy ways

Though some challenges may arise with illness, pain or mobility issues, there are ways to modify exercise practices and there are people who can guide you in proper movement. Discuss exercise plans with your health care provider. Find out about physical signs that would alert you to take it easy. If you have physical limitations, consult a physical therapist to make sure that you make the best choices for your body. Senior centers have some of the best exercise and fitness centers in the area. They are affordable, if not free, and there is usually guidance for exercises that are good for older bodies.

Sleep and Rest

It is perfectly normal for sleep patterns to change in later life. Most commonly, people tend to have a harder time falling asleep or staying asleep. Yet sleep needs don’t decline with age and people should aim for an average of 8 hours of sleep at night.

Too little sleep can cause:
  • Daytime drowsiness or excessive sleepiness
  • Cognitive challenges such as focusing, concentrating, remembering
  • High risk for falls or accidents
  • High levels of frustration and moodiness

Some people really struggle with significant sleep disorders and need to seek assessment and treatment. The terms “sleep architecture” and “sleep hygiene” refer to sleep behaviors and habits that can be assessed and modified when sleep becomes problematic.

Our brains need rest from stressors and overstimulation. Rest involves giving the brain a break and a re-charge. This might be done with a quick nap of less than 20 minutes however napping too much might contribute to sleep problems at night.

Spending time in quiet reflection, prayer or meditation is wonderful for the brain. Meditative practices are easy to learn and can be used anywhere.

The benefits of meditation include:
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Improved digestion
  • Reduced tension
  • Reduced pain
  • Improved cognitive function

Stimulation

The term “use it or lose it” can be applied to the brain. Activity that is challenging, social or educational helps to maintain neuronal (brain cell) strength. Too often, people mentally slow down when they physically slow down. Stimulating engagement needs to remain a priority to maximize brain health. This can be done by challenging the brain by learning new things, engaging in problem solving (puzzles) and exposure to multiple topics of conversation or debate.

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