As we age, staying active becomes increasingly important. When you hear “active,” you probably think of cardio classes, bike rides, or any other physical activity. But did you know that exercising your mind is just as important? Dr. Kristen Jessen, Neurologist at Palouse Neurology, provides some tips and tricks to keeping your mind active and engaged as you age.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a progressive brain disease that damages nerve cells in the brain and causes memory loss, confusion, problems with language comprehension, and behavioral changes. As nerve cells are damaged, the brain’s ability to work properly is reduced.
What are the risk factors for developing dementia?
The risk factor list for dementia is extensive. It includes a family history of dementia, lower education level, drug use, alcohol use, tobacco use, chronic smoke exposure, stroke, heart attack, brain disease (like MS or Parkinson’s), head trauma, hypertension, diabetes, infections (like HIV or sepsis), poorly controlled epilepsy, and history of delirium. If you have one or more of these risk factors, talk with your primary care physician at your next annual wellness appointment about your individual risk.
“There are numerous medical conditions that can look like dementia, but are treatable or reversible. These include thyroid infections, vitamin deficiencies, subclinical seizures, depression, lack of quality sleep, heavy metal exposures, autoimmune diseases, and kidney/heart/lung disease,” says Dr. Jessen.
Does diet affect the likelihood of developing dementia?
There are some simple diet tweaks that can have a big impact on the health of your mind. For those that eat meat, Dr. Jessen recommends opting for wilder or game meat such as elk, moose, and buffalo when available. She also favors cold water fish such as halibut and salmon to warm water fish like mahi mahi. Overall, following a Mediterranean-based diet of mostly beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables is recommended by Dr. Jessen.
Research has shown that higher levels of antioxidants from consuming fruits and vegetables consistent with a Mediterranean-based diet may help protect brain cells from damage and increase the protein levels in the brain. Additional benefits of this diet include reduced signs of inflammation and lower cholesterol.
Does physical activity help keep your mind active?
Physical activity includes anything that raises your heart rate and leaves you breathing hard. These can be sports like running, hiking, and swimming or tactical activities like splitting wood, raking leaves, and shoveling snow.
Physical activity assists with blood flow in the brain and increases chemicals that protect the brain. Some research has shown that regular physical activity is linked to improved memory, attention, and processing speeds.
What hobbies can I pick up to help keep my mind active?
“The mind is like a muscle. Use it or lose it– you need to exercise it every day,” advises Dr. Jessen. She notes that studies have shown that the wider the variety of activities you do, the better! It’s recommended to start at retirement, or 10 years prior to the age anyone in your family developed dementia. She recommends that for a hobby or activity to really be impactful, you should engage with it for at least 20 minutes a day.
Learning a new hobby or skill with your hands can help keep your brain active. If you’re musically-inclined, playing the piano or guitar are great options. If you’re artistic, consider carving, painting, sewing, quilting, or whittling. If you like to move your body, tai chi or yoga might be more your speed.
Language activities like crossword puzzles, boggle, scrabble, reading novels can also aid in activating your mind. Watch out for word searches in newspapers and magazines though- Dr. Jessen says those are often too easy to really get your mind working.
Time to book a trip to Vegas? Dr. Jessen recommends counting games such as poker, blackjack, whist, rummy, and Sudoku. She cautions that solitaire is too simple, so don’t count on that activity for mental stimulation.
When should I start focusing on a new hobby to keep my mind active?
It's recommended to start at retirement or 10 years before the age that anyone in your family has developed dementia. For a hobby or activity to really be impactful, you should engage with it for at least 20 minutes a day, according to Dr. Jessen, who also notes that studies have shown that the wider the variety of activities you do, the better.
How do I know if I need to see a neurologist?
Dr. Jessen and her fellow neurologist, Dr. Sarita Said, practice at Palouse Neurology, a specialty service of Palouse Specialty Physicians – a partnership with local hospitals Gritman Medical Center, Pullman Regional Hospital, and Whitman Hospital & Medical Clinics. To see a neurologist, you need a referral from your primary care provider or, in emergency cases, a referral from an emergency medicine provider.
“By practicing preventative activities, we can empower ourselves and others to stay healthy,” reminds Dr. Jessen. “My philosophy of care is truly to make my patients happy. This is finding the best balance of lifestyle changes and medication to minimize side effects and maximize quality of life.”
To learn more: https://www.palousespecialty.com/