Stroke, aneurysm, tumor, head injury, Alzheimer’s Disease. Reading the list can send a chill down anyone’s spine. We know they’re out there, we know we could get them, we know the consequences. But we go on with our lives not giving them much thought until the fateful day we, or a loved one, receives the diagnosis. It’s like driving. We jump in the car day after day assuming it will run until the momentous morning the engine cuts out in the middle of the expressway.
Much of our vehicle’s health is up to us. We must get routine oil changes, tire rotations, and fill up with gasoline. And when we hear that loud sound, or have trouble getting it started, we call the mechanic. Similarly, our brains require preventative maintenance to keep them running smoothly, and when the first sign of a problem strikes such as head pain, confusion, or neurological symptoms, we need to seek out our “body mechanic” to get a quick diagnosis. We know that not ignoring unusual symptoms – with our cars or our body – is important to minimizing damage.
It is true, however, that some bodies, just like some makes and models, come with a bad part – a defect that we won’t know about until the breakdown occurs and we call for emergency assistance. Some things are beyond our control. But if we survive the crash restoration often can occur.
Ongoing research is taking place which is showing the positive impact simple lifestyle changes can have on preventing, slowing, and/or rebounding from cognitive decline. Neuroscientists are studying how common activities such as exercise can foster neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons), neuroplasticity (the formation of new neural connections, reorganization, and adaptation), and angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels) in the brain.
So buckle up. Let’s quickly review some simple lifestyle changes that are showing promising findings in the area of brain health.
1. Socialization & Intellectually Stimulating Leisure Activities
So you thought everything on the list would be unenjoyable and arduous, huh? Not so! Research has consistently found that isolation (and even perceived isolation) has a strong correlation with cognitive decline, and that social involvement throughout later life can avert or postpone the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive deterioration. Moreover, a few investigations have come out suggesting that activities such as writing, reading, puzzles, board games, crafts, and acquiring new computer abilities – especially when the activity involves the learning of new skills and a communication component – may improve an older adult’s performance across multiple cognitive spheres.
2. Art & Music
How about a little cultural refinement while working on your brain health? A study looking into the effects of art therapy in older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment revealed significant improvement in memory scores (that were sustained at a 9-month follow-up), as well as improvements in executive functioning, working memory, attention, and visuospatial skills. “Music and the arts have a very protective effect when it comes to brain health overall”, noted Dr. Scott Kaiser (Geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health) in an interview done with Pacific Neuroscience Institute.org (12/21/21). Alzheimer’s research has found that attending to music can improve cognitive functions, and that in particular, music with personal ties stimulates and fortifies the brain region that weakens in Alzheimer’s Disease.
3. Online Cognitive Training
It used to be that if someone needed cognitive retraining they would go to a Speech or Occupational Therapist or be involved in a structured Cognitive Rehabilitation Program. These resources are still very valuable and available especially for those who have experienced some sort of injury to their brain. But what if you’ve never experienced head trauma or a stroke, or perhaps it occurred a long time ago and you just want to exercise your brain on your own? Good news! Multiple websites exist (some for a price and some free of charge) that allow you to play games to stimulate that mind of yours. Not all sites are built alike, however. Some explicitly state that their sites were developed scientifically (e.g. www.Lumosity.com asserts over 20 peer-reviewed publications in academic journals that have used their games or assessments; www.BrainHQ.com advertises 100+ scientific papers confirming the benefits of their exercises). So do your homework to find the site that works best for you.
According to the NIA – National Institute on Aging, eating a healthy diet can help reduce the chances of developing chronic illnesses, which may even include dementia. “Researchers have developed and are testing [a] diet, called MIND, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. According to observational studies of more than 900 dementia-free older adults, closely following the MIND diet was associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and a slower rate of cognitive decline” (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults).
When on the MIND diet, one simply eats more of the 10 foods that are encouraged (green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, fish, beans, poultry, wine), and limits the consumption of: butter, cheese, red meat, fried food, and pastries/sweets.
Oh you knew it was coming! Last, but certainly not least, studies have suggested multiple potential benefits of exercise (especially aerobic), including: the development of new and preservation of existing neural networks in the brain; the enlargement of brain structures needed for memory and learning; the maintenance of thinking skills in healthy individuals and the improvement of these skills in those with mild cognitive impairment; and lowering the risk, delaying the start, slowing the progression, and improving the cognition of those with mild Alzheimer’s Disease.
Lastly, a word to the wise: Before starting any new diet, exercise, or health program, always check with your doctor to make sure it’s a good fit for you. If it is, choose one area that seems most doable, set realistic goals, and find a buddy to keep you accountable. Then give that old jalopy a test drive! It may prove more resilient than you ever knew!
Dr. Nicole Best (“Nikki”) is a Clinical Psychologist and 3-time ruptured brain aneurysm survivor. She earned her Doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) from Wright State University School of Professional Psychology, and completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at The Ohio State University Medical Center, Dept. of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Division of Rehabilitation Psychology. Thereafter, she worked for almost 14 years in the VA Healthcare System before leaving on Disability after her 3rd subarachnoid hemorrhage. She has extensive experience performing psychotherapy and neuropsychological and decisional capacity evaluations with patients suffering from a wide range of medical conditions, including dementia, traumatic brain injury, stroke, and terminal illness.