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Boosting your brain’s health

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Exercise and nutrition are usually what people focus on when it comes to improving or maintaining health and well-being as we age, but these things — along with other preventive measures — are also crucial when it comes to our brain health, too.

As we grow older, it’s natural to experience changes in the brain’s functional capacity, including reduced ability to remember details, names and facts. Complex executive functions are also affected, including the ability to plan, multi-task, make decisions and problem solve.

But there are ways to combat the effects of aging on the brain.

A University of Calgary study published in the journal Neurology last year suggests that older adults — even those previously sedentary — show marked improvement in cognitive testing after just six months of regular aerobic exercise. These improvements are equivalent to an average of a five-year reversal of brain aging.

Dr. Marc Poulin’s Brain in Motion study included more than 200 participants between the ages of 50 and 83 years with no cognitive complaints.

Poulin, a professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, researches the mechanisms regulating cerebral blood flow and how they change with aging, and with interventions.

“The [exercise] intervention actually changed people’s lives,” Dr. Poulin writes.

“Many participants contacted us after the end of the program to express how they are now able to be more independent in their life, and how better they feel from both a body and mind perspective.”

Some also reported adding new friends and hobbies to their lives, which can also boost brain health.

When it comes to brain health, many factors intertwine to either increase or mitigate the effects of typical cognitive aging, as well as diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia. Some of these factors are modifiable — within our control, to some extent.

Padma Genesh is a learning specialist with the Alzheimer Society of Calgary, and she develops educational programs for the community on dementia and risk reduction, and trains health-care professionals on dementia care.

“Changes happen in the brain as we age. It’s believed that there is a two per cent reduction in the weight and volume of the brain every two years after the age of 40,” Genesh says.

Normal changes can be compounded by chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and even depression and hearing loss, and some people have inherited genes for types of dementia, which can’t be changed, but may be mitigated by adopting healthy lifestyle strategies.

Engaging in cognitively stimulating occupations and leisure activities can help protect the brain from the effects of aging.

Avoiding smoking and alcohol, which increase the risk of strokes and heart disease — which have domino effects on brain health — is recommended.

Addressing hearing loss and visual impairment can also improve cognition, Genesh says.

“It’s something people hesitate, but there are sleek tiny (hearing) devices now. If you don’t address hearing impairment, more functional abilities are recruited trying to understand what people are saying, and there is not so much brain reserve for problem solving or complex stuff.”

Depression and social isolation increase the risk of cognitive impairment, and this has been an issue during the COVID-19 pandemic with many older individuals impacted by restrictions. Looking for ways to engage in socially and cognitively stimulating activities will translate into better brain health later, Genesh says.

Sleep deprivation is yet another major risk factor for poor brain health. Proper sleep will improve memory function at any age but also reduces risk of dementia and even death. People who sleep fewer than five hours per night are twice as likely to develop dementia, and twice as likely to die compared to those who sleep six to eight hours.

“It’s believed that deep sleep allows the brain to flush out toxins that lead to dementias like Alzheimer’s disease,” Genesh says.

Addressing issues such as mismatches of the body’s internal clock with day and night and sleep apnea, and reducing exposure to blue light from devices such as cell phones and tablets four hours before sleep initiation can help improve sleep.

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