Dr. Judith Black, medical director for Highmark Senior Markets
Lifestyle factors can play an important role in protecting your brain as you age. The health of your brain, like the health of your body, depends on many factors. Some factors such as your genes are out of your control, but there are many powerful lifestyle factors you can control or adjust. If you are an older adult, or the caretaker of an aging parent or grandparent, a few key factors will help you get and remain “brain healthy.” They include:
- Exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet
- Mental stimulation
- Getting quality sleep
- Managing stress
- Maintaining an active social life
- Avoiding smoking and heavy alcohol consumption
Early detection makes a big difference for both the person living with Alzheimer’s disease and the caregiver. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early detection enables an individual to plan for the future by finding ways to reduce stress while at the same time getting personal affairs in order. Making legal, financial and care decisions, beginning treatment and enrolling in clinical studies where they are available help when there is an early diagnosis. Also, it helps individuals and their caregivers seek support from others in the same situation and identify community resources that can help.
It is important to talk honestly and candidly about your lifestyle and health choices with your doctor. Health care directives and decisions are best made when a patient has the mental capacity to do so. Intervention strategies and, if necessary, appropriate medication can lessen symptoms such as agitation and anxiety and improve sleep and participation in activities.
Finally, if you are caring for an aging parent or grandparent, don’t neglect your own needs. Take a break and do something you enjoy. If you are feeling guilty, angry or frustrated, realize that these feelings are normal and that you are not alone. You are not failing as a caregiver by asking others for assistance. So, seek out the support of your family, friends and resources in your community.
Multiple studies have found that unpaid caregivers for those who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia are more likely to have higher levels of stress hormones, reduced immune function, new hypertension and new heart disease that non-caregivers.
Although no cure for Alzheimer’s is presently available, good planning and medical and social management through caregivers can ease the burden on the patient and family. A focus on improved care and support for the patient and caregiver are helping to ease the burden of Alzheimer’s disease. Although it is difficult for the person and his/her caregivers to cope with the symptoms of the disease, thoughtful care planning and modifications to the living environment now can relieve some stress.
It is sometimes hard to know the difference between an age-related change and the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Be observant of changes, even if subtle, and talk with your doctor.
If you notice any of the 10 warning signs from the Alzheimer’s Association in yourself or a loved one, talk with your doctor immediately. They include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
- Confusion with time or place.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
- New problems with words in speaking or writing.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
- Decreased or poor judgment.
- Withdrawal from work or social activities.
- Changes in mood and personality.
Whether you are an aging adult or a caretaker, it is important to take charge of your brain health now because your health matters.