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Brain Workouts To Keep Older Adults Sharp and Fit

Guidance   »   Wellness   »   Brain Workouts To Keep Older Adults Sharp and Fit

As we age, our fitness routines start to focus as much on the neck up as the neck down. We may have growing concerns about natural cognitive decline and some memory loss as we get older. We also are concerned about more serious health issues such as Alzheimer’s disease that affects 1 in 3 older adults according to the Alzheimer’s Association. All of this is making brain health a bigger priority when it comes to our wellness practices. 

Some of this newfound interest is fueled by fear especially given recent news headlines such as actor Bruce Willis who was recently diagnosed with aphasia or former Morgan Stanley CEO, John Mack, who announced he has mild cognitive impairment (MCI), both of which fall under the dementia category of neurodegenerative diseases. As well, we have seen a parade of famous names such as former President Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and lifestyle guru B. Smith – all who had Alzheimer’s – and it seems every day a friend or family member is diagnosed with dementia. 

The big question is what, if anything, can we do to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s and stay cognitively sharp as we age?

The answers lie in a growing body of research and lifestyle practices for better brain health. We know nutrition, restful sleep and intellectual stimulation (such as an encore career, learning a new language or volunteering) all contribute to better brain health, but let’s focus on how to best exercise our brains.

The new trend is cerebral gymnastics

In the ‘60s it was Jack LaLanne who had us glued to our TV sets while he encouraged us to pump iron in his blue workout jumpsuit. Then actress and activist Jane Fonda put on her leg warmers and told us how to “feel the burn” as she ushered in the age of aerobics in the ‘80s. The last couple of decades we have focused on calming our minds and bodies with meditation practices such as yoga and tai chi. 

All of these historical fitness regimes provide benefits for brain health: 

1. Strength training

An Australian research study showed six months of strength training, such as lifting small weights, can help protect brain areas especially vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease up to one year later. The study found this type of exercise can slow or halt brain deterioration in parts of the brain that are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. The added benefit of strength training is it also increases bone density as we age reducing the risk of osteoporosis and increases muscle mass to help with balance which often is impaired in those at risk for Alzheimer’s. 

2. Move more

Aerobic activity is essential to cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure, a key risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. By walking just 5,000 steps a day, you improve blood flow and lower hypertension. And walking outside in nature is a double boost. One study found taking a walk where you can view trees, beaches or other nature scenes, reduces oxidative stress and can lower Alzheimer’s risk in adults over age 60.

3. Meditate to calm the brain

Yoga and other meditative practices reduce stress and release endorphins that provide pain relief whether it is a headache, back pain or arthritis. When it comes to brain health, numerous studies have shown those who adopt a regular yoga or meditation activity have a thicker cerebral cortex (where our brains perform information processing) and hippocampus (where our brains store memories and support learning) than people who don’t do any meditation.

4. Practice brain workouts but not brain games

As scientists have produced more research on how the brain works, a new term called brain plasticity has emerged. Where it was once believed the brain could not regenerate itself (similar to how the liver can produce new liver cells to optimize its function), science now tells us we can grow new neuronal connections to improve cognitive function.

Many believed by playing Sudoku or doing crossword puzzles, they could attain this brain plasticity. But brain science says no. In fact, one brain game company had to pay $2 million in fines because of false advertising claims that it improved brain function when all it did was enhance rote memorization of that game but not overall brain performance.

Only a handful of credible companies, such as brainHQ, backed by significant evidenced-based studies have been found to improve brain plasticity. The key is in finding solutions that offer cross-training brain exercises in a similar way that we optimize our physical workouts through cross-training efforts. By mixing up brain exercises into a full suite of activities, you improve memory, decrease depression, enhance self-confidence and can even increase driving skills. Just as we improve our performance levels in physical exercise such as being able to lift heavier weights or do more reps, walking more steps or improving our breathing and heart rates through yoga and meditation, brain training applies the same principle. You want to find programs that consistently ask you to try new exercises, go to the next level of brain exercise or perform the exercises faster. Only then will you truly achieve brain plasticity and better brain health. 

5. Make it social

Sometimes it is easier to adopt new fitness routines when we make it more of a social activity. One of the advantages to senior living communities is that a variety of physical fitness and social events are part of the community’s culture. And yes – being more social does improve brain health. A recent study in Neurology among 500,000 adults age 57 and older showed social isolation actually changes brain structure showing poorer cognition, memory and less gray matter – all precursors to Alzheimer’s. 

So get moving, get strong, get calm and don’t think you have to do it all alone – your brain will thank you. Kithward can help advise you on the senior living communities that offer the best in class physical and brain health programs as well as the social activities to keep you active and thriving.

About Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist with an expertise in wellness and brain health across the life course. She is an author, podcast host, consultant and founder/CEO of Caregiving Club.

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