Health changes occur as seniors age. According to Aging.com, the more than 5.5 million seniors in the United States live with with decreased brain function and dementia conditions.
Mary Ertle, project manager at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Cleveland area chapter in Beachwood; Silvia Orsulic-Jeras, senior research associate, SHARE program manager at the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging in Cleveland; and Evan Shelton, director of brain health at Menorah Park’s Center 4 Brain Health in Beachwood, said maintaining healthy brain function should be a high priority for seniors.
“Maintaining a healthy brain is important for older adults to keep a clear and active mind,” Shelton said. “As we get older, we are at greater risk of developing memory-related conditions that interfere with our ability to think and engage in a way that we would like.”
Though brain health is an important subject for individuals of all ages, Orsulic-Jeras explained many times the subject isn’t broached until one gets older.
“For seniors, brain health is something that is talked about more because many conditions are associated with age,” she said. “When older people become forgetful or they aren’t as sharp as they used to be, people are worried about what is going on with their brain. As we get older, it is normal for the brain to change. It’s a common experience due to normal changes in the organ as we age.”
Speaking of how the brain can age and change, Ertle said brain health is directly related to one’s overall health.
“Brain health is an important part of senior health because the brain controls the rest of the body,” she stated. “Research is showing that what is good for your heart is good for your brain. Things that may reduce your risk of heart disease may also reduce your risk of cognitive decline.”
Orsulic-Jeras noted, “Cognitive health is only one part of our brain health. Our brain controls how we move and how well we move. It affects our emotional functioning, how we feel about the things going on in our lives and how we react to them. ... It impacts our mental, physical and emotional health all around.”
To improve brain health, Shelton suggested individuals focus in five areas: exercise, diet, rest and recovery, socialization and cognitive stimulation. But, when it comes to a specific regime, Shelton added it is not a “one size fits all situation.”
“The best thing that you can do for your brain health depends on your lifestyle and circumstances,” he stated. “I recommend taking a look at each of the categories and evaluate your performance in each of those categories honestly. If you find that you’re very social and cognitively engaged, but don’t maintain a healthy diet, then diet should be where you put your focus. Likewise, if you have a healthy diet and exercise regularly, but find that you’re often stressed and don’t sleep well, you should first focus on rest and recovery.”
Ertle said, “Studies show that certain lifestyle interventions may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. One of the best things seniors can do is exercise. Anything that increased blood flow to your brain and body can help. Socialization allows you to use different parts of your brain to keep it active. Maintaining a healthy diet is also crucial for brain health.”
Family members should also be proactively looking for ways to support brain health in their aging loved ones, the professionals said.
“Families can be supportive by doing things together,” Ertle said. “Make healthy meals together, go on walks and socialize with each other to improve everyone’s brain health.”
Orsulic-Jeras said, “It is so important for families to remember to keep their older loved one socialized through interactions. A lot of what happens is people stop asking their older loved ones what they like to do. Learn more about their interests and their life story, spend time with them doing what they love and value.”
But supporting an aging loved one starts with a conversation about their brain health, Shelton concluded.
“If you have concerns about memory and cognition, diet and exercise, it is good to be transparent about this and the things that can be done to help with brain health moving forward,” he said. “As memory challenges present themselves, we often try to ignore them for fear that they signal a coming decline. Beginning a discussion about this before it happens can help to destigmatize memory challenges and encourage your loved one to continue with or adopt a healthy lifestyle.”