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Improve Your Aging Brain

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By taking control of your aging -- armed with the understanding of ways to achieve better outcomes -- you have the opportunity to make a real difference in how you age. Instead of greeting age with fear, you can meet it like a friend -- with active engagement, determination to make it positive, and, yes, even find joy and inspiration in the process. Marcy Cottrell Houle, co-author of The Gift of Caring, shared the top four things you can do to improve your aging brain.

# 1 EXERCISE FOR AT LEAST 30 MINUTES DAILY.

# 2 FOLLOW A MEDITERRANEAN DIET.

Studies are documenting that people who adhere to the Mediterranean diet have a marked decrease in dementia, heart problems, and many other medical tribulations as they age. It is a diet that you can follow for the rest of your life, because when you learn how to do it, it doesn’t feel like dieting. It feels good!

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

• It’s a diet that hinges on fresh fruits and vegetables. The thing to remember is to get five colors every day! For example, spinach, tomatoes, peaches, blueberries, oranges or squash.

• Eat lots of whole grains and legumes, lentils, beans, whole grain bread, and other whole grain items.

• Eat healthy oils such as olive and canola oil. Healthy fats include almonds, walnuts, and avocados – all especially good for you.

• Your protein, other than beans, should be derived mostly from fish and chicken breast. You may eat non-fat cottage cheese and yogurt, as both are healthy, and delicious when paired with berries.

• Do not eat red meat more than twice a month. If you eat red meat, it should be low fat varieties and in small-sized portions.

• Stay clear of sweets, but it’s okay to have 2 ounces of dark chocolate daily. Just remember to not eat it right before bed as it has some caffeine.

#3 LEARN NEW THINGS!

Exciting new research is showing that by challenging your brain to become skilled at something new is one of the best ways to maintain its function. Learn a new language or take up playing a new musical instrument. These techniques can help expand your social horizons. Even more, ground-breaking research is revealing that both of these ways can help your brain cells regenerate – or, grow and repair damage incurred from getting older!

What if I’m not at all musical, and don’t have any music training, for instance?

You don’t have to become the next Emanuel Ax or Andre Watts to revitalize your brain. If learning music or trying out a different instrument is new for you, even learning simple tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” can help jump start your brain to repairing and making new cells!

Attempting creative pursuits is shown to be strongly correlated with positive and healthy outcomes as we age. Building new skills, partaking in hobbies, and engaging in creative activities all require the brain to remodel itself. This function jumpstarts growth of new brain cells acting to replace those that are growing older or have become damaged.

Recent studies have shown that older individuals who have been involved in weekly participatory art programs have demonstrated over a two year interval:

A. better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage;

B. more positive responses on mental health measures;

C. more involvement in overall activities.

Interestingly, even people with a beginning dementia are able to create with the support of the group. In one study, when residents of a dementia care facility were encouraged to participate in story telling, this led to more smiling and greeting of others, engaging in conversations, and humming. Patients fell asleep more easily, had less agitated behaviors such as wandering and repetitive shouting, and required less assistance with things like going to the bathroom.

#4 STAYING ACTIVELY ENGAGED IN OUR COMMUNITY AS WE GET OLDER.

Staying involved in cultural, educational, and civic activities is a critical aspect of healthy aging. It provides for better physical, mental, and cognitive health as well as beneficial social integration.

Think about it: older adults have a wealth of wisdom and practical knowledge to share with the younger people in our communities. Also, as we age, our perspective broadens, allowing us to see life from differing points of view. These attributes of older adults make them an amazing resource to our communities – if only we could readily tap into it!

For our brains, as we age, to remain healthy it is important to be connected with family, friends, and work. A sense of being a valued and contributing member is essential to maintaining cognition and preventing depression and functional dependence.

In essence, there are many things we can all do to promote healthy aging, and healthy brains, – for our loved ones and for ourselves. It is never too early – or too late – to begin. And, you don’t have to be completely disease-free to “qualify” for good aging; people who suffer from illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems, or numerous other ailments can still age successfully – physically, mentally, and emotionally -- by making the best of their situation and following the guidelines above.

It boils down to a fork in the road and the path you choose. There are two before you. You can decide to let age take the lead and run its own decelerating course in its own fashion. Or, you can choose to sign up, pin on the running bib, and actively engage in the race. Aging is a marathon of sorts. But plenty of 80 and 90 year olds today can be found running marathons.