While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with challenges, it has also taught us lessons. Likely, you have tapped into your emotional reserves and discovered how resilient you are during this time.
Brain health, of which mental health is an essential component, has been at the forefront of many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues during the pandemic. We have all experienced varying levels of uncertainty, stress, anxiety, and grief during this time. Our brain health has helped us manage and process these emotions as well as exercise resilience.
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month. Take this opportunity to review and strengthen these six key practices, necessary for rebuilding your reserves, strengthening your brain, and lowering your risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Six Steps: Move. Eat. Sleep. Monitor. Engage. Challenge.
- Move. Move your body. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Regular physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, enhances memory and learning, and improves mood and thinking. And it’s never too late to start. Begin with a short walk in your neighborhood or gentle chair yoga. You can find helpful videos online. Here’s one video to get you started. Please check with your healthcare provider first to make sure you are cleared for exercise. And be aware of any hazards (cords, shoes, rugs, poor lighting) in the area where you chose to exercise.
- Eat. Eat smart. It’s true: We are what we eat. One of the best approaches to eating in support of brain health and lowering the risk of developing dementia is adopting a Mediterranean diet. The foundation of this diet is fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs, spices, fish, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil. Eat poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt in moderation. Only rarely eat red meat. Don’t eat added sugars, processed meats, refined grains, or highly processed foods. Farmers markets are opening again. Fresh produce is abundant. If you garden, all the better.
- Sleep. Get your Zzz’s. Often overlooked, sleep is fundamental to brain health and lowering dementia risk. Seven to eight hours of consecutive sleep a night is restorative and cleansing. Sleep also plays an important role in restoring our immune system as well as helping manage stress and balance mood. Regular physical activity and eating smart can also help aid sleep. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, which disrupts sleep patterns and is harmful to brain health, talk with your health care provider.
- Monitor. If you have a health condition such as hypertension, high cholesterol, depression, or diabetes, follow your doctor’s advice closely. Take medication as prescribed. Left unchecked, these health concerns could result in serious complications. All these conditions have been shown to contribute to an increased risk of developing dementia. And if you smoke, quit. Try a smoking cessation program.
- Engage. Social engagement and interaction are important. Many of us have experienced isolation during quarantine. The pandemic has reinforced how vital human connection and interaction are to our overall health, especially our brain health. Research shows that individuals who stay socially engaged experience the slowest rates of cognitive decline. Fortunately, public spaces are slowly reopening, and more people are getting vaccinated. Pace yourself but get out there and spend time with family and friends once again. Something as simple as an in-person coffee chat with an old friend can do wonders to brighten your day, enhance your mood, and benefit your brain.
- Challenge. Stimulating the brain with intellectual challenges helps trigger new brain cell growth and builds new neural pathways. To strengthen and flex your brain, try something new. Learn a new language. Have you always wanted to play to piano? Start now! Take a poetry writing class. Try some of these free intergenerational programs facilitated by SilverKite Community Arts and offered virtually through the King County Library System and Seattle Public Library.
Additional Resources & Encouragement
- How to keep your brain young (Harvard Health)
- Brain Health (Alzheimer’s Association)
- What is brain health? (American Heart Association)
- Global Council on Brain Health (AARP Health/Brain Health & Wellness)
- COVID-19 and Brain Health: The Global Council on Brain Health’s Recommendations on What to Do Now (a deeper dive into the benefits of brain health, the impact of COVID-19, and lowering your risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s)
Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management, consultation, and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County and serves on the Advisory Committee of the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs and the Marcomm Council of the Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State Chapter.