Americans are living longer than ever before. And healthy seniors can look forward to many years of active life, thanks to the ability to repair or replace damaged joints, remove cataracts, treat heart problems, and other advances.
But there’s a downside. Because we are living longer, we’re more likely to suffer from age-related memory loss and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. For many seniors, dementia is the worst fear of old age.
Some people are thrust into the role of caregiver abruptly. After a loved one has a sudden illness, he or she may obviously need a lot of help.
But often, caregiving is a gradual process with few clear dividing lines. How do you know when you've really become a caregiver? When is it time to start taking more control over a relative's life -- and to start taking control away? And how will your new responsibilities caring for someone else affect the rest of your life?
Research shows that the risk of some cognitive problems is inherited. But there’s also evidence that a healthy lifestyle and good medical care may help keep the mind, like the body, active and vital well into old age. WebMD went to the experts to get the latest advice. Here are eight ways to keep your mind as sharp as possible.
1. Stay Physically Active
By keeping your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy, exercise helps ensure that all parts of the body, including brain cells, receive the oxygen and nutrients they need.
“A healthy brain really depends on a healthy body,” says Aron Troen, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “If blood supply is impaired to the brain because of vascular damage, it’s clear that it won’t function as well. Physical activity is crucial.”
In fact, a healthy circulatory system may be particularly important for a healthy mind. Although the brain represents only about 2% percent of body weight, it uses about 25% of the energy we consume. So maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system to deliver that energy is critically important. Keeping muscles fit also matters. In a 2009 study of 900 seniors, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago reported that those who maintained muscle strength were significantly less likely to go on to develop memory impairment or Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Challenge Your Mind
The old saying “use it or lose it” applies to our brain and muscles alike. “Many new lines of research show that the human brain has much more plasticity than previously thought,” says Troen.
In many ways, it’s like a muscle. Challenging the brain to learn new things -- by reading, taking up a language, doing crossword puzzles, or playing a musical instrument, for example -- can help keep the brain and informational processing in top form and may even reshape brain circuitry.