A bit of forgetfulness as we enter our more mature years is not exactly welcome, but it is normal. That being said, you probably want to know what, if anything, is under your control and what you can do to keep your brain as healthy (and as non-forgetful) as possible.
It turns out that most of the things that keep your brain healthy are the same things that keep the rest of your body healthy. As we musicians say, “Same song, second verse.”
Get enough quality sleep. Doctors and scientists do not yet completely understand how sleep works, but they are all in agreement that it is necessary. Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep patterns change naturally as we age. In general, older adults take longer to fall asleep, have a harder time staying asleep, sleep fewer hours and less deeply. It’s best to try to solve the underlying cause of sleep problems without relying on medicine. Although sleeping pills might seem to help at first, they aren’t a good long-term solution.
Eat a balanced diet that is high on vegetables and fruit and low on meat and high calorie/low nutrient foods. I like to get most of my protein from beans, legumes and lean meats and fish. As a bonus the vegetable protein sources are high in fiber which keeps your digestive system rolling along nice and regularly.
Exercise, every day. You don’t need to train for a triathlon or Mount Everest to get enough exercise, but you can if that’s your thing. You do need to find things you like to do that get you up and off the sofa for 30 to 60 minutes (preferably 60) a day: walking, biking, skipping rope, kayaking. You don’t have to do the same thing every day and you don’t even need to do your 60 minutes all at once.
Don’t just sit there. You might think I’m still talking about exercise, but now I’m talking about the normal course of your day. If you spend most of your day sitting, make a point to get up and move around once every hour. I have a friend who sips on water all day so she has to use the bathroom frequently, which gets her out of her chair.
Limit how much alcohol you drink. Excessive amounts of alcohol are not good for your brain and many other organs as well. A glass of wine or a beer with supper is fine, but keep it down to that.
Maintain healthy blood pressure, weight, cholesterol level, and blood sugar level. Highs (and sometimes lows) of any of these can be harbingers of illness or can contribute to future illness. Keeping them within normal range helps keep your brain healthy.
Those are all the physical things that keep your brain healthy, but your brain is more than just another organ in your body. It is also what makes you, you. Keeping the mental side of things healthy matters just as much.
Stay connected to avoid social isolation. Use the phone or chat by video to friends and family near and far. Make plans (and keep them) to visit people. Join a group that has similar interests to yours, e.g. knitting guild, hiking club, trivia night team, volunteer group, etc.
Learn to do something new. It can be hard work learning something new, but it challenges and stimulates your brain, which are both good things.
I know many of these recommendations require an investment in time to do them, and it can feel like there are not enough hours in the day. Think about this. If you do not make time for your wellness, you will likely be forced to make time for your illness.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.
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