As we age, we all fear that we might fall victim to dementia, Alzheimer’s or a stroke. Neuroscience research is ongoing, looking for causes. A few revelations provide helpful pathways for maintaining and even stimulating “brain health.”

 

Our whole brain

If you know or care for someone living with dementia, Alzheimer’s or disabilities caused by a stroke, having an understanding how the parts of the brain work together will give you a better understanding of the dysfunction they are experiencing.

Brains speedily process our cognitive capabilities, such as visualization and verbalization of tasks. Different parts of the brain house motivational, emotional and executive decision making. Connections between these centers allow us to make nuanced responses.

With strokes or injuries to the left side of the brain, speech is affected, as is the ability to focus and to comprehend sequential instructions. If the right side is injured, spatial orientation is affected. This can result in a person becoming lost in familiar surroundings or to lose the ability to draw. The right side of the brain is also critical for regulating aggression, intense emotions and for exhibiting empathy and humor.

Both sides of the brain are constantly communicating with each other, facilitating nuances of language, metaphor, creativity and the appreciation of music and art.

 

Let’s play games

Factors positively influencing brain health are movement and exercise, stress reduction, social engagement and a balanced diet. Good sleep is critical. During sleep, our brains reorganize, prioritize and store our experiences from the previous day; bodily functions such as hormone levels reset.

By welcoming mental challenges, our brains can continue to grow and stay resilient. Card playing, board games and puzzles test our mental acuity and help us stay sharp. The more challenging the game or puzzle, the better.

Bridge is known for its intricacy. It was derived from the English card game of whist. In the United States, bridge was very popular throughout the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Even though 71 is the average age of competitive bridge players, the card game is seeing a resurgence.

For brain health, games like bridge are dually rewarding: They are cognitively challenging and socially engaging. Bridge sharpens memory, visualization and sequencing skills. The social interaction is stimulating. For people with physical limitations, a game of bridge might be the only activity that gets them out and engaged.

Not into bridge? Seattle’s senior centers offer a wide selection of activities providing social inaction along with stimulating activities. A 25-year study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found couples’ dancing requires the highest level of mental acuity when compared to other physical activities.

It is widely thought that mental challenges and the regular use of memory and motor skills delay onsets of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

 

Diet and health

DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) is a structural component of the human brain. Seafood rich in DHA is believed to be good for brain health and is purported to reduce the chance of strokes. Examples of seafood rich in DHA are salmon, swordfish, tuna, herring and sardines.

Research has also identified risks to brain health: high blood sugar, high systolic blood pressure, depression or apathy and heart disease.

A deficiency of vitamin D is allegedly a factor contributing to poor brain functioning. Check with your doctor before taking supplements.

 

Caregiving

In the United States, there are 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s and, worldwide, an estimated 35 million living with dementia. Those numbers are expected to triple by 2050.

The onset of Alzheimer’s poses extreme distress and immeasurable difficulties for the person affected, as well as for the spouse and family members who — frequently and out of necessity or duty — end up being full-time caregivers.

No one is capable of being a caregiver 24/7. Caregiving exacts a toll. Caregivers need to know they are not alone. Sharing stories within a network of caregivers is therapeutic. In his book, “Into the Storm,” Seattle-writer Collin Tong has assembled an anthology of caregiver stories. When his wife developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, Tong left work to become her full-time caregiver.

Many health failures are inexplicable, but, as we age, we should be mindful of the factors that positively and negatively influence brain health. A reality: We don’t know how aging is going to affect the future, but we improve our chances of enjoying our senior years by being mindful of the physicality of our brains and doing our part to keep our brains fully functioning and healthy.

 

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Submit questions by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.

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