A growing body of research continues to demonstrate that older adults who maintain social networks and participate in social activities are generally at lower risk of cognitive decline. Other research suggests that social networks may help preserve cognitive function by guarding against depression and the adverse effects of stress. Social engagement may also protect cognitive function by providing stimulation.
Dr. Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, has written a number of wonderful books about Alzheimer’s prevention and brain health. His research and that of others clearly demonstrates that lifestyle is the largest contributor to brain and heart health (what’s good for the heart is good for the brain). “When you eat a healthy diet, exercise daily, and stay socially connected and mentally active, you are living a ‘brain protective’ lifestyle,” says Dr. Small.
At this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, held in Toronto, Ontario, the big news was that lifestyle choices remain the best way to not only prevent but also reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. A healthy lifestyle is defined as one in which you don’t smoke, sleep at least seven or eight hours a night, eat a Mediterranean diet, lower stress, stay physically active, and keep social and intellectually engaged.
How do I adopt and maintain a heart-and-brain-healthy lifestyle?
Look no further than your nearest senior center. And forget everything you think you know about senior centers. According to the National Council on Aging, “senior centers have become one of the most widely used services among America’s older adults. Today, 11,400 senior centers serve more than one million older adults every day [emphasis mine].”
- Compared with their peers, senior center participants have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction.
- The average age of participants is 75.
- Seventy-five percent of participants visit their center one to three times per week. They spend an average of 3.3 hours per visit.
As Sound Generations’ Senior Centers page declares, “Senior centers are lively hubs that connect older adults and their families to their communities. Members take classes to keep fit, share meals and socialize.”
Today’s senior centers are energizing, engaging community gathering places where on any given day you might encounter a group engaging in Tai Chi, dancing a hula or the Electric Slide. Other days you’ll can find a zoo walking group or another heading out for an urban hike. Participants can be found taking classes in computers, how to manage diabetes through nutrition and exercise, bead making, watercolor, and more.
Many centers offer intergenerational programs, so you might find kids and older adults learning to knit together. Across the hall there might be a seminar on health insurance. Tomorrow, there’s yoga, memoir writing, and quilting. Looking for a game of Pinochle, Mah Jongg, Bridge, or Scrabble? You’ve found your place! And most offer made-from-scratch hot meals on weekdays served in a community dining room.
At the Greenwood Senior Center, on the last Friday of each month, there’s “bingo, karaoke and good times for folks age 21 and older.” Go to the Lynnwood Senior Center to join a group of elders heading out for some whale watching, kayaking, or eagle watching. Intergenerational and cultural engagement, creative expression, recreational programs, social interaction, volunteer, and civic engagement opportunities—all of this is available through senior centers. Throughout September, the Burien Senior Program offers trips—the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, fall colors in Leavenworth, and Mount Rainier National Park.
If you haven’t visited a senior center lately, let this be encouragement to do just that, as a wealth of wonderful experiences awaits. There are new friends to be made, old acquaintances with whom to reconnect, and isn’t it nice to have someone else cook for a change? Protecting your cognitive health is a great bonus in exchange for all this fun!
Want to learn more about healthy aging?
Consider attending the University of Washington’s Elder Friendly Futures Conference on September 15–16 at the Lynnwood Convention Center. Elder Friendly Futures features two full days of educational sessions, energizing keynote speakers, networking opportunities, engaging exhibits, research poster presentations, roundtable discussions, films discussion (always popular!), and a University Book Store kiosk.
Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care™ practice (geriatric care management) serving King, south Snohomish, and Whatcom Counties, and co-chairs the 2016 Elder Friendly Futures Conference.
Photos in collage at top of page courtesy of Sound Generations.