About 5.4 million people age 65 an older—1 in 8 adults—has Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia in the U.S. Alzheimer’s is the fifth-leading cause of death in this age group, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
But here’s the good news: You can adopt brain-healthy behaviors now that may slow down and even prevent cognitive decline.
Chris Cannon, a community program specialist at Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, knows firsthand about the growing interest in brain health.
In studies of community needs and interests, mental health has shown up as a top priority in surveys, Cannon said.
“I saw a great need in our community to learn more about cognitive decline among the aging,” she said.
Cannon helped develop a class at Zeeland Community Hospital, Boost Your Brain and Memory. It’s based on research from a ground-breaking study that identified various health factors that may not only decrease the likelihood of dementia, but also help prevent it.
The class centers around factors that may prevent cognitive decline: physical activity, nutrition, and spiritual, social, emotional and intellectual health.
Caring for brain and body
Cannon helps participants identify lifestyle changes that promote good brain health.
“Physical activity is important to keep the brain healthy,” Cannon said. “We recommend 30 minutes, five days a week. Walking is always a good choice, and gentle exercises such as tai chi can help improve balance, flexibility and posture.”
Emotional health requires eliminating stress as much as possible. Getting adequate rest, practicing breathing techniques and meditation can all help.
“These are all good for our emotional health,” Cannon said.
Another tip: Avoid multi-tasking.
“Our society celebrates being busy, but it is actually harmful to the brain,” Cannon said. “We need to learn how to stay present in the moment and focus on one task at a time.”
For social health, Cannon recommends connecting with others—family, friends and community.
“Meeting with others can be tricky during a pandemic,” she said. “But making virtual connections can be meaningful, too. For instance, a lot of book clubs have gone to virtual meetings. Or you can take an online class.”
Games have become a popular idea for maintaining cognitive health, but Cannon warns that playing the same game over and over again can quickly become less effective.
“You have to learn something new in order to build those new neurons in the brain,” she said. “It’s about stretching yourself. See something you’ve never seen before. Learn a new language or play a new instrument. Reading is an excellent way to keep the mind working.”
A healthy diet is also important. Cannon recommends the Mediterranean diet—fruits and leafy, green vegetables, as well as lean meats, nuts and legumes.
“And avoid sugars and heavily processed foods,” she added.
In the spiritual realm, strong faith may help the mind. Cannon recommends keeping a gratitude journal—listing daily things to be grateful for can keep you on a positive track.
‘The fog has cleared’
Darlynn Pettinga, MSN, RN, has taught the brain- and memory-boosting class the past few years at Zeeland Community Hospital and the Georgetown Senior Center.
The class is open to all ages. Pettinga said her youngest participant was in his 50s, while the oldest was in her 90s.
“The majority of participants are there because of family histories of dementia,” she said.
Some participants see it as a subject they want to learn more about.
“I think the hardest ones are those who come with a spouse who already is showing signs of dementia,” Pettinga said.
While it can be difficult to make long-term changes in habits, even the slightest changes in lifestyle can be beneficial, Pettinga said.
“Benefits are dependent on the motivation and willingness of the participant to make even small changes,” she said. “When I see participants later in the public arena, many tell me about the walks they are taking now, the breathing exercises they are doing. I think it makes a difference.’
That proved true for Nancy Beukema, 69, of Hudsonville, Michigan.
Years ago, Beukema suffered health problems that affected her brain health.
As someone with a doctorate of education in special education, she quickly became aware of a difference in her thinking.
“Especially memory,” she said. “I felt like I was living in a fog. I was taking longer to process things and I knew I could do better.”
She had been taking a tai chi class with Pettinga in 2019 when she heard about the class for boosting the brain.
“I was surprised to learn how much we can affect our brains,” Beukema said. “Our brains don’t have to age. We have the ability to control much of that.”
Beukema began making changes based on the lessons she learned in class.
She continued tai chi and took daily walks. She took cooking and computer classes. She changed up the games she played, adding jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles and sudoku. She listened to new types of music. She read more and started cross-stitching. She sought out new areas to research and study.
She even changed the routes she drove and broke up routines in her day.
“The class motivated me to make little changes throughout my day,” she said.
It didn’t fix all her struggles with memory and brain health, “but I’ve noticed definite improvement,” she said.
“The fog has cleared,” she said. “I can look at a phone number and remember it again. That’s something I couldn’t do for a long time.”