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8 Ways for Seniors to Maintain Brain Health & Mental Agility
Marissa Salvesen

By: Marissa Salvesen on June 14th, 2021

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8 Ways for Seniors to Maintain Brain Health & Mental Agility

assisted living  |  senior nutrition  |  senior nutrition ct  |  senior living nutrition  |  health tips for seniors  |  Aging & Caregiving

As we age, changes are happening in many different areas of our bodies, and the brain is no exception. Research tells us that certain parts of the brain shrink, particularly those critical to learning and other complex mental activities. Inflammation may increase in response to injury or disease, and communication between neurons in certain areas of the brain may not be as effective. These types of changes result in potential impacts on cognitive function, even for healthy seniors. 


Still, ongoing studies in the area of brain health indicate that regardless of the aging process, the brain maintains an ability to adapt by creating new neural pathways. This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity, and it’s good news for seniors interested in nurturing their brain health. Of course, accessing the full potential of neuroplasticity means focusing on various aspects of your lifestyle that are linked to cognitive health.


The National Institute on Aging suggests the following ways to address these areas and support mental agility in the face of age-related brain changes.


1. Prioritize Physical Health


Basically, stay on top of your overall physical health by affording this area of your life the attention it deserves. Are you getting your recommended health screenings and properly managing chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.)? It’s important to stay in communication with your health care provider regarding the medicines you take and understand their possible side effects on memory, sleep, and brain function.


Some of the more obvious factors for supporting physical health include things like limiting alcohol and avoiding nicotine products. You should also prioritize healthy sleeping habits and ensure you’re getting enough quality sleep. Since brain injuries are detrimental to brain health and mental agility, try to reduce any hazards related to falls and other accidents.


2. Manage High Blood Pressure


Though many people associate blood pressure management with heart health, it’s conducive to brain health as well. Studies have shown that lowering your blood pressure (even below the previous standard target of 140 for systolic blood pressure) lowers the risk for mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for dementia.


Because high blood pressure isn’t always noticeable through clear signs or symptoms in everyday life, it’s important to have this checked regularly by your physician. If your doctor detects issues with escalated blood pressure, they may recommend lifestyle changes like an exercise routine or nutrition plan, or they might start you on medication. Regardless of the steps used to prevent and control high blood pressure, doing so is a good step toward supporting brain health and mental agility.


3. Consume a Healthy Diet


Speaking of a nutrition plan, let’s talk about how maintaining a healthy diet plays into brain health and mental agility. Some research indicates a link between healthy eating and the preservation of cognitive function or reduced risk of Alzheimer's. There’s actually some evidence that people who consume a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing dementia. The science is still evolving, but there’s speculation that this particular diet’s capacity to improve cardiovascular health might be the catalyst for reducing dementia risk.


A healthy diet is generally one that encompasses staples like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. It limits solid fats, sugar, and salt focuses on portion control, and emphasizes hydration. There’s also the continuously studied MIND diet, which when closely followed, has shown a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and a slower rate of cognitive decline.


4. Focus on Physical Activity


While there are so many well-known benefits to staying physically active, whether, through exercise or daily activities, it may be surprising to learn that research has also shown a correlation between physical activity and brain health. In one particular study, exercise proved to stimulate the brain's ability to maintain old network connections that are vital to cognitive health and make new ones. Other studies have shown that exercise increases the size of a certain brain structure that’s important to memory and learning, which results in improved spatial memory. It’s suggested that aerobic exercise is more beneficial to brain health than non-aerobic.


The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans encourage adults to get at least two and a half hours of physical activity per week. For seniors, walking is a popular option, as are programs that instruct on how to move safely and prevent falls, which can further prevent brain injuries that impact mental agility. Always be sure to consult your physician before starting a new exercise regimen.


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5. Keep Your Mind Active


Studies have shown that people who engage in personally meaningful activities say they feel happier and healthier and that learning new skills may improve thinking ability and memory. In addition to enhancing a senior’s overall well-being and quality of life, engaging in new and old hobbies, particularly ones that are more cognitively demanding, can be beneficial for a senior’s mental agility. 


Keeping your mind active can encompass a wide range of enjoyable options, including anything from taking (or teaching) a class to volunteering or practicing a craft, like quilting, woodworking, photography, etc. Findings from observational studies suggest that certain informal activities that are mentally stimulating, such as reading or playing games, may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s-related cognitive impairment and dementia. Some scientists have argued that these activities protect the brain by establishing "cognitive reserve," or becoming more adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related brain changes and health conditions.


6. Stay Social and Connected 


We talk a lot about the importance of seniors having adequate socialization and human connection, given the major benefits of doing so—not the least of which is cognitive health. Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated. People who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others even tend to live longer, and studies show that these activities may improve cognitive function.


There’s no substitute for spending quality time with family and friends. You may even consider volunteering for a local organization, joining a club, or simply meeting regularly with a walking group of older adults. Some of these types of activities have been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.


7. Manage Stress


Over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory and increase your risk for dementia. Therefore, it’s essential to manage stress and strengthen your capacity to bounce back from stressful situations. From regular exercise and relaxation methods to journaling and positivity or gratitude practices, there’s a plethora of ways to reduce and manage stress. Regardless of the tactics that work best for you, stress management can have a significant impact on brain health and mental agility.


8. Mitigate Cognitive Health Risks


There’s a whole host of risk factors along with the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle spectrum that can affect cognitive health, any and all of which may contribute to a decline in thinking skills and the ability to perform everyday tasks (e.g., driving, paying bills, cooking, medication management, etc.). While the genetic factors can’t be controlled, many of the environmental and lifestyle ones can be managed to reduce risk, including:


  • Some physical and mental health problems, such as high blood pressure or depression
  • Brain injuries, such as those due to falls or accidents
  • Some medicines, or improper use of them
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Sleep problems
  • Social isolation and loneliness


It’s important to keep these risk factors in mind and talk to your physician about ways to mitigate them. By taking steps to reduce risks for cognitive decline, you or the senior in your life can do what’s in your own power to help maintain brain health and mental agility.


To find out how United Methodist Homes provides a wealth of offerings and opportunities to support the health and wellbeing of our residents, contact us today or schedule a complimentary visit now. For additional tips on senior health and lifestyle issues, check out our blog.

About Marissa Salvesen

My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!

Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.