In general, people in developed countries are living longer than ever. This is good news for many people, but it does come with some interesting and unfortunate side effects.
One of these is an increase in infirmities and disabilities that are tightly correlated with advanced age, in particular dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general memory loss. According to an article published by Guy C Brown from the University of Cambridge,
“Generally, increased life expectancy has increased the risk of disease, disability, dementia and advanced ageing prior to death.”
This is not unexpected, the link between old age and mental difficulties has been well established for some time, but it does raise the question; what do we do about it?
While there is no cure or silver bullet for age-related mental difficulties, there are steps those concerned with their mental flexibility can take to improve and protect their memory and brainpower.
1. Get Proper Sleep
The old saw about needing a solid 8 hours of sleep each night is more or less debunked; every body is different, and every person functions best on a different amount of sleep. Chronic lack of sleep does have a negative impact on brain function, however. Do your best to get a consistent, restful night’s sleep, and take steps to prevent interruptions such as shutting off your phone and the computer screen at least an hour before bed.
2. De-Stress and Relax
The brain has difficulty with more complex thought when under stress. The issue is that when your body feels stressed, it can’t always differentiate between a life-threatening moment and simple worry about a big presentation, and it fires up the adrenaline. Taking time to relax and center oneself can help aid memory recall much more than frantically trying to ‘force’ your mind to cough up the memories.
3. Play Word Games
As creatures of language, most of our memories are related to or conveyed in words as much as they are in images. Expanding and using your vocabulary can help you build neurological connections, making it easier to form strong new memories. Scrabble, Words with Friends, or even word-replacement games can help. In Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens recommended a game in which the player and their friends replace one word from famous book, story, or movie titles and see what they come up with, such as replacing “House” with “Sock.” Played among friends, it can lead to some engaging and energizing mental exercise.
4. Take Care of Vascular Health
According to Dr. Anand Viswanathan, the associate professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, “About 15% to 20% of dementia cases in older adults are vascular dementia.”
In simple terms, cholesterol and hardened arteries cannot deliver oxygen rich blood to the brain as effectively as healthy blood vessels. The result is a general, steady reduction in cognitive function among people with unhealthy eating habits. Take steps to increase healthy parts of your diet, and reduce cholesterol-rich foods.
5. Exercise Regularly
Studies conducted in people aged 60 and higher found an inverse relationship between exercise levels and dementia severity. In other words, active and regularly exercising seniors were less affected by cognitive impairment from dementia.
Part of this is of course improving heart health and reducing vascular clogging – more exercise means less such buildup in the arteries. However, it also means that the body is using more oxygen and getting more of it to the brain. Find the time to incorporate half an hour’s workout, minimum, into your daily routine. Take stairs instead of elevators when possible, walk more frequently, or join a yoga or fitness group. Any exercise you do will pay off in time.
6. Get out and Socialize
Part of having a healthy memory is the creation of the memories in the first place. Take the time to meet with friends regularly, and engage in varied and rewarding discussions. Remaining engaged with friends and family can help improve cognitive function, because it involves using the parts of the brain responsible for creating and maintaining memories.
7. Engage in new Activities
Mental flexibility and health is closely linked to mental activity. Routine experiences are comfortable and easy to work with, and important to life. However, stimulating the brain by trying new hobbies or other experiences helps the brain form new neural connections and pathways. Challenge your brain to learn new skills as often as you can.
They don’t need to be complicated new skills, either – any activity can help stimulate the brain as long as it is engaging. Learn to play a new card game, take up a craft hobby, or engage in people watching.
8. Quit Smoking
We’ve stressed how closely linked mental function and proper oxygen flow are. Smoking causes severe respiratory impairment, and reduces your body’s ability to process oxygen. Even without considering emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, those who smoke are consistently at a higher risk of dementia than those who do not. Eliminating tobacco intake of any sort should be a key goal for anyone seeking to improve their short and long term memory function.
Keeping the mind engaged with varied activities is vital and important, but so is the ability to deeply focus on a particular subject or feeling. Mindfulness exercises and other meditations can help the brain, both through relaxation and a unique form of focus. Take a dedicated time each day, for as little as ten minutes, to simply sit, focus on a particular sensation or thought, and your mind will reap the benefits.
10. Limit your Sugar Intake
Diabetes has been demonstrated to have a statistical link to dementia and Alzheimers. By simply reducing the amount of sugar in your diet, you can make serious inroads into helping prevent or slow the onset of these conditions.
The causes of dementia and other mental conditions are diverse and complicated. No one trick will work for everyone. Instead, adopting a variety of self-care and support mechanisms will see the best results. Here’s to good mental health, and good memories.