David and I just met with our financial advisor this past month. Our goal? Plan for retirement! Don’t worry, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, and honestly we both believe we will be bored silly unless we work part-time into our 90’s. Of course, this requires that we maintain our health, both physically and cognitively. Did you know that our physical bodies are outlasting our cognitive minds? With all the new medical innovations, we can actually keep our bodies maintained pretty well. Our minds, on the contrary are more difficult to maintain. In comparison to physical health, our knowledge of cognitive health is way behind! We have only begun to learn about the aging brain and possible interventions for preventing or limiting cognitive decline.
For at least a decade, aging specialists have stressed the importance of both physical and mental exercise for maintaining or preventing cognitive decline. Seniors everywhere are attempting to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines. Almost daily, while walking my dog in the nearby park, I cross paths with an elderly lady. She has her sun visor and fanny pack on. She’s rocking out to her music, coming from the portable radio strapped to her belt. Her gait appears pained, but there is a huge smile on her face and she always greets me. I often wonder if she is conscious of how much good her daily walk is providing her brain or if she just believes exercise is good for her physical health. Either way, she is reaping the benefits cognitively.
Social engagement is another important factor for healthy brain aging. I occasionally take a meal or treat to our elderly neighbor across the street. She lives alone and honestly, I rarely see her. A local grocery store delivers her groceries, a local pharmacy delivers her medications, a parishioner brings her Sunday communion and her nephew mows her lawn. On these occasions, I see her poke her head out the door, engaged with others. Mostly, however, her days are spent watching television. Every time I knock on her door, the television is blaring! That blaring television is what keeps me going back. It is her primary “social” network and it saddens me to think she has very little occasion to socialize. Of course, I can hardly get away when I do drop by. She talks my ear off! For the elderly, however, social engagement isn’t just about derailing loneliness. Social engagement also provides purpose. Elderly individuals who are engaged socially with their families, communities or part-time employment, have a greater sense of purpose, which is important for both emotional and cognitive health.
Elderly individuals who “keep their smarts” also do their best to lead healthy lives by controlling for risk factors of brain disease. This includes managing their blood pressure and cholesterol, limiting or eliminating toxins such as cigarette smoke, and modifying their diet by decreasing their consumption of processed foods. In addition, they understand the importance of taking supplements known for maintaining a healthy brain.
Obviously a big part of keeping your brain healthy involves keeping your brain active. My parents have completed a daily crossword puzzle together since they first retired. They, of course, enjoy this activity, but are also cognizant of the importance of exercising their brain. My father has recently taken up the activity of reading for pleasure. These types of activities require problem-solving and activate both long-term and short-term memory processes. In addition there has been a recent influx of "brain-training" programs introduced to the elderly population. Because we provide neurofeedback services in our practice, my parents are quick to alert us to such opportunities. Most recently, they shared an advertisement in AARP where a computer program was touted as having the capability of improving driving skills. The program basically provided practice driving sessions. In order to be successful the elderly “gamer” was required to pay attention to detail. We do believe the potential for improvement is there, and programs like these are unlikely to cause any harm cognitively. However, most of these programs are problem-solving activities that can be accessed through free or low-cost online games or apps. These are adequate for providing challenging cognitive activity for the average person. If you or an elderly parent are experiencing specific cognitive concerns, such as short-term memory deficits, and have not noticed any benefits from these types of activities, you may want to consider neurofeedback before investing in the plethora of available "brain training" programs. These programs take a one-size-fits-all approach, and while beneficial for many, may not provide you or your elderly relative with the results they are seeking. Neurofeedback is individualized to the participants specific brain-wave activity and symptoms, and can be much more beneficial!
by Trish Carter, LIMHP, LPC, BCN