by Judd Matsunaga, Esq.
My Nisei parents call it “senior moments” and can get away with it. However, my wife and I, both Sansei, are also having trouble remembering names and will occasionally forget where we put something. Since we can’t quite call it “senior moments,” we call it the beginning stages of dementia.
Like our body, our brain also undergoes changes as we age. As a result, there are slight changes that will occur in memory and cognition (thinking) as we age. So how do you tell whether memory lapses are within the scope of normal aging – or represent something more serious, such as dementia?
Regardless of what it is, or what you call it, all of us want to keep our mental faculties as sharp as possible for as long as possible. Mrs. Matsunaga says, “What good is a healthy body if you don’t have a sound mind?” She’s not alone. It has been estimated that 50% of adults over 60 have concerns about their memory.
An AARP survey of more than 1,500 adults found that 98% of those surveyed over 40 said maintaining and improving brain health was very or somewhat important. The problem is, only about 50% are participating in activities — such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, and reducing stress.
“This new survey is showing that there are big gaps between what people think is important for their brains and what they are actually doing to maintain their brain health,” said Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president. The biggest gap between what those surveyed thought was important and what they were actually doing was in stress management. Only 43% of those surveyed said they were managing stress effectively.
To help you understand how damaging stress can be on your brain, I came across the following AARP video that I found fascinating:
Stress (a physical, mental or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension), you know it when you feel it. The good news is, it has surprising benefits: motivator, cognitive enhancer, physical enhancer. The bad news is, when you’re feeling it too often, it can really do damage to your brain.
Here’s what you need to know. There are two major types of stress: (1) Acute stress, which in the short term may be useful; and (2) Long-term chronic stress, the one you want to keep an eye on. Acute stress is your fight or flight response to a scary situation. When you experience acute stress, your brain releases chemicals and hormones that cause your pulse to quicken, your muscles to tense, and your brain activity to increase - all of it preps you to face the threat, or run from it more effectively.
A study on laboratory rats at UC Berkeley has shown that short-term acute stress generates new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, it can actually improve cognitive and mental and performance. And while a short burst of stress can be positive, long-term chronic stress can be truly damaging to the brain.
It’s caused by everything from the pressures of work, caregiving, major life-changes like divorce or death, traumatic experiences like abuse or war. During chronic stress the Amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response, becomes over-stimulated. It’s active so often that it actually grows.
And the hippocampus, that same memory center that can benefit from brief stress, starts to shrink. This imbalance caused by chronic stress may lead to memory problems, cognitive decline, and emotional swings.
While it may not be possible to get rid of every stress, it’s vital for your brain health to take action now to reduce the chronic stress in your life....
Staying Sharp, powered by AARP, tells you how. Their website states that 93% of Americans say brain health is vitally important to them but aren’t sure what they can do to support their own brain health. Research has shown that lifestyle behaviors can have a big impact on your brain health. They have identified 5 pillars of brain health: Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, and Connect.
No surprises here – you’ve been hearing for years that movement and exercise can increase your brainpower by helping to grow, repair, and maintain brain cells. But did you know that according to Owen Carmichael, associate professor and director of biomedical imaging at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, exercise can make you more productive and more alert throughout the day.
A 2014 study from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Texas tells us that trying new things, like quilting, or even learning a new piece of software, or a new language can strengthen our brains. Yes, learning a new language will get your neurons firing, but so will seeing a 3-D movie, joining a new club, or even using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth.
A lot of us think of relaxing as a physical thing, but your brain needs to chill out, too. A 2014 study published in Molecular Psychology showed that poor sleep can lead to impaired memory and that chronic stress can affect the ability to learn and adapt to new situations. A professor at MIT has said even something as commonplace (and stressful) as multitasking can slow down your thinking. If you’re stressed out, consider learning ways to reduce anxiety. Yoga, meditation, or a walk around the block all can help you get a good night's rest.
Eating well is more important than ever now that we know our diet can affect our brain health. According to a survey of over 6,000 health professionals, diets high in saturated fat (like beef and cheese) may lead to memory and cognitive decline, but brain healthy ones, such as the Mediterranean diet, high in monounsaturated fats (like olive oil and avocados) may protect the brain against disease.
A 2015 study tells us that seeing a movie or playing a round of golf with friends does more than just kill time – having a diverse social network can improve your brain’s plasticity and help preserve your cognitive abilities. Interacting with friends not only helps reduce stress and boosts your immune system, it can also decrease your risk of dementia. Consider starting a weekly game night or learning which volunteer opportunities best support good brain health.
In conclusion, as we get older, most of us have our concerns about diabetes, high blood pressure, our back, or our knees. But remember, your brain is the most complex organ in your body. It's also one of the most important. That's why keeping it healthy is critical—especially as you get older.
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