As I have got older I realised undeniably I cannot take short cuts in looking after my physical health. What about keeping my brain and mind healthy?
What can change as the brain ages?
Like the rest of our body the brain does change over time. Adult brains can deal with large amounts of knowledge and very complex ideas easily. Old lessons can be brought to bear to solve new dilemmas and learn new things.
“With age comes wisdom”
Emotional lessons learnt over lifetimes often emerge over time.
Some neural networks are easier to build in childhood such as languages or picking up complex patterns of movement necessary for dancing or playing ball sports. It isn’t impossible for you to learn these skills later in life, but it will take more time and come more slowly. In fact there is some evidence that learning new skills and activities can be beneficial for brain health later in life.
Sometimes as you age, there are more troubling changes such as forgetting people’s names, losing track of car keys and other possessions. When these difficulties start to interfere with you enjoying getting on with life it can be highly anxiety provoking.
What to do if changes in memory and problem solving occur?
Everybody forgets things at times. If it becomes worrisome it is worthwhile taking stock of what is going on in your life. There are actually a lot of positive things you can do that will optimise your brains health and reduce your chances of problems later such as dementia that can affect your brain.
Am I eating right? The brain uses 25% of the energy the body converts from food each day. So if your intake of food is inadequate or of poor nutritional quality then it is likely your brain is letting you know.
Eating what is commonly called a Mediterranean diet with an abundance of fruit and vegetables together with wholegrain cereals and breads and lean protein is known to improve functioning.
Actually it doesn’t have to come from the Mediterranean. Most traditional “village” diets from around the world that often our grandparents ate are full of the right sort of nutrients our bodies and brains crave.
Making sure your iron levels, vitamin B levels and vitamin D levels are within acceptable limits will often have a profound effect upon cognitive functioning.
It is normal to experience a range of moods from happy to sad but it is not normal to be unable to move, or feel low, distressed, guilty or ashamed. This could mean you may be experiencing depression which can often have a profound effect upon cognitive skills as well as emotional skills. There is even a form of pseudo- dementia often seen in lonely depressed older adults who can appear severely demented but recover their ‘normal’ thinking once their depression is addressed.
Anxiety and stress can similarly wreak havoc on cognitive skills having most impact upon your concentration and attention, especially when trying to do more than one thing at a time.
Psychologists are highly skilled in treating these mood disorders with resulting recovery of cognitive skills.
Adequate sleep, especially quality deep sleep is necessary for good brain health. Most of us require between 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night or they experience poor concentration and memory lapses. If sleep is an ongoing difficulty for you, then psychologists can provide expert assistance in recovering lost and disrupted sleep patterns.
Exercise and Socialisation
Multiple studies have shown that physical exercise benefits not only the body as we age, but also the mind. Even older people with known dementia showed signs of improvement when introduced to physical exercise. What’s nice is there’s lots of different sorts of physical exercise to choose from so pick something you enjoy doing. You’ll start to generate neurotrophins which promote neuroplasticity and the growth of new brain cells.
A really nice side effect of exercise is meeting nice people. Socialising is now understood to be a highly protective factor for the ageing brain. Not only releasing feel good endorphins but also increasing what we can learn, not to mention our support network.
The brain relies implicitly on the other organs of the body to function well. Diseases of seemingly unrelated organs such as the gut, the liver and pancreas can have a big effect on the efficient release and processing of toxins that can get through the brains defences and affect brain functioning. So if you’re not feeling well or on top of managing a chronic condition consulting your GP is a great place to start for a tune-up.
What is Dementia?
Working in major public hospitals gave me the opportunity to talk with people living with dementia, a major brain disease. Some are elderly moving towards the final stages of their lives and some are young. As young as their 40s or 50s with careers, and plans ahead of them abruptly changed. There are currently no known ways to reverse the impact upon cognition. But all of these people I talked to were full of life, determined and often highly resilient.
Dementia is a disease not an inevitable part of ageing. Unfortunately there is no cure for dementia. Dementia is defined as measureable decline in daily functioning together with deterioration in cognition. Often first signs can be memory lapses, forgetting how to organise a meal for a person who previously loved to cook, unexpected vehicle accidents in a previously confident driver. Other times it robs the sufferer of full awareness and insight into the changes. This can mean family find their loved one becoming overwhelmed by household possessions, piles of rubbish, washing never done, bills unpaid and amenities cut off. Dementia rightly raises fears of being stripped of civil liberties, deprived of one’s home, little indulgences and company of friends and pets.
As such changes are often left overlooked and unheeded and plans are never made. Eventually there are usually medical crises, angry words and tears, family arguments and stresses as to what is to be done.
How can psychology help with dementia? You still have a life to live so take control!
If you are concerned you might have the beginnings of dementia now referred to as Mild Cognitive Impairment it is important to know what you’re dealing with so you can take steps to keep your quality of life as high as possible.
Neuropsychologists have skills in measuring different cognitive skills: attention, memory, novel problem solving, visual skills and speed of thinking. A neuropsychologist can measure your performance and then compare it to how most people your age would function on the same tasks. A picture of your cognitive strengths as well as weaknesses emerges. This information together with personal history provides insight into whether your cognition might have some significant problems or if in fact you’re doing just fine.
A skilled neuropsychologist can then advise you whether there are things that you can do such as some of the lifestyle choices listed above that might be incredibly beneficial. Maybe you’ve actually got a mood disorder or incredible stress levels that if addressed could solve the issue.
If you want to read more
There’s a great new book on this topic written by Australian researcher and psychologist Dr Nicola Gates, A Brain for Life published by ABC Books.
If you are worried that you or a loved one may have dementia or any other difficulty with memory, sleep, eating or any of the other areas mentioned in this blog we can find the most appropriately experienced psychologist for you here at Attuned Psychology.