As 2016 draws to a close, it is human nature to reflect on the occurrences of the year coming to pass – the highs, the lows, the joys, the heartaches, the accomplishments, and the regrets. For most of us, we look back and shake our heads with jaws dropped in astonishment at just how different some things turned out in 2016 than we had anticipated. That is the beauty of living life!
No matter how much we attempt to control circumstances and influential factors, life has a way of knocking everyone off his/her feet at some point. Some of us resign ourselves to our new “fate.” Some of us deny any change at all. However, the healthiest and happiest people, despite their hardships, are those who accept, process, and then adjust their plan to grow in a positive direction.
So what does all of this have to do with brain health? Aging is inevitable. Physical growth is limited. However, personal development and new life experiences are limitless so long as we commit to making simple practices into daily habits…and keeping your brain healthy impacts every aspect of your health and well-being – mind, body, soul. So the steps I recommend for brain health in 2017 are…
1. Hydrate, hydrate, HYDRATE!!!
Water is your body’s friend. You are composed primarily of water. It impacts every single organ of our bodies. As we age, our instinct that tells us we are thirsty diminishes though our need for hydrating fluids does not. Dehydration is one of the primary reasons older adults find themselves in the Emergency Room, and it is often due to an event such as a fall, weakness, infection, or delirium that occurred because of dehydration. Therefore, we must be ever vigilant and intentional about our consumption of fluids, keeping in mind that caffeinated beverages and alcohol do not count as they actually dehydrate you.
2. Consume a balanced and colorful diet (and no, red meat does not count!)
Food is nourishment. Choose wisely. Just as a car cannot run without fuel, your brain cannot function without the proper amount of glucose and nutrients circulating in your blood. Think of the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – how many foods do you eat of those colors? Healthy diets for most individuals consist of a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and adequate intake of fiber, lean protein, and calcium. Aim to eat something that is naturally of each color and you are off to a great start! Do not worry about number of servings needed per day in the beginning. Just keep an open mind to trying new foods and expanding your color wheel when it comes to meal times. People often feel discouraged when trying to make drastic diet changes. Just get started, find what you like, and then seek the balance in number of servings per day that works best for your body.
3. Get your heart going!
We all know that our bodies need exercise to best function, but we often become bogged down with all of the details – How much exercise? What type of exercise? What is my target heart rate for it to count? So let’s make it simple. Strive to do some type of activity for at least 20 minutes a day that increases your heart rate and breathing rate just enough that you notice the change. If you are so out of breath, you cannot carry on simple conversation with the person next to you, you are working too hard. If you can still sing a song (even if out of tune), you should increase the effort level somewhat. The goal is to increase circulation throughout the body, strengthen the heart to work more efficiently, increase oxygenated blood flow to the brain, and trigger the release of endorphins that improve physiological function and mood. Studies have shown that people who complete at least 20-30 minutes a day of some type of cardiovascular exercise as described here are at significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Your activity can be whatever gets your heart beating to that level of effort without excessive challenge – walking with a friend, chair exercise with some type of resistance or weight training, dancing (Zumba, anyone?), and even some forms of housework.
4. Practice the rule of 7s for at least 7 days.
· Take 7 minutes by yourself (preferably outdoors).
· Take 7 deep breaths.
· Name (mentally or verbally) 7 things for which you are grateful.
· Smile/greet at least 7 people a day.
I recommend this practice for multiple reasons. Taking 7 minutes to change your scenery and the sensations that come from stepping outdoors activates different neural pathways as you take in a different visual scene, begin to notice the change in temperature, the feel of the wind against your face, the sound of passing cars or birds chirping, the smell in the air. Taking 7 deep breaths not only brings more oxygen into your bloodstream, and thus your lungs, but it also lowers stress hormones and has the ability to push a “reset button” for heart rate. Focusing on 7 things for which you are grateful is a powerful cognitive-emotional exercise to help keep life in perspective, even when times are hard. Admittedly, this step is more challenging on some days than others, but it IS possible – every day. Finally, greet at least 7 people a day with eye contact and a smile, even if you have to fake it. A positive chemical reaction occurs in our brains when we see someone smiling at us. We typically smile back, which then reinforces both people with positive endorphins. We were created with the ability to communicate in order to connect with others. Social connection is essential for brain health. Try the rule of 7s for 7 days. You will not regret it!
5. Keep your brain fresh to live purposefully.
Brain fitness is about challenging the brain, of course, but in order to build and strengthen neural pathways, you must change up your cognitive exercise routine and find work that feels meaningful and purposeful. In other words, if you are phenomenal at word search puzzles, take up Sudoku. If you are brilliant with crossword puzzles, take a class on a new topic with which you have limited or no experience. If creative vision is your gift, join one of our arts and restoration classes to further develop those skills and interact with others of similar interests. Accept that some cognitive tasks will come easier than others and resist the urge to judge yourself. Just as your brain experienced a learning curve as you progressed through your school years with new knowledge, your brain will experience this same curve now. Stimulating various parts of your brain with learning new information or using a different cognitive process promotes overall brain activity and health by increasing blood flow and strengthening pathways within your brain that are not typically stimulated. It may seem frustrating at first. Do not let that discourage you! Your confidence will soar when you conquer the problem or learn the new skill, and your brain will flood you with rewarding neurotransmitters in thanks for your perseverance.
6. Sleep at least 8 hours a night and do not apologize for it!
We have morphed into a culture that prides itself on doing more and relegates sleep as the necessary evil to which we must submit in order to get back to doing more again the next day. Sleep is a VERY powerful and necessary aspect of life for all living beings. During sleep, we do not simply rest our bodies. We also allow for cell repair throughout the body, information processing, and the cognitive filing away of the multiple stimuli we have encountered. We experience phases of deep sleep during which the brain directs all of the organs to clean up the clutter we have generated and left behind in a given day. Sleep is essential to optimal cognitive functioning. So be good to yourself and catch those ZZZs.
7. Seek variation in your sensory experiences.
· Try aromatherapy. Scent is a potent tool for recall and mood regulation.
· Try new foods and flavors. Even if you do not like them, stimulating your palate to new flavors forms a strong emotional response for most people and activates the brain as it tries to categorize that flavor.
· Take 30 seconds to look closely at a very familiar item in your home and try to find something you have not noticed before. Look at pieces of art and decide what it says to you. Watch a sunrise or sunset and appreciate how quickly the view changes right before your eyes.
· Take a moment to actually touch and take notice of the different textures you encounter in a day. From the crunchiness of fall leaves to the softness of new grass to the scratchiness of a brick wall…they all speak volumes to your brain as it registers and differentiates those textures.
· Stop and LISTEN. Listen to music from different time periods in your life. Go outside. Do you notice the rustling of the leaves? Do you hear the bus pass by? On TV, do you notice the sound of a whistle reminding you of sports you used to play? Even if your hearing is impaired, use all of your other senses to help you hear when you step outside to practice your rule of 7s. Intentionally, use that sense and you might be surprised what your brain still detects.
Maximize the brain stimulation and recall possibilities triggered by your senses – smell, taste, seeing, touching, hearing. The saying is true – USE IT OR LOSE IT.
8. Don’t accept obstacles. Determine who can help you find the pathway to success!
If you experience an obstacle in implementing any of these steps, do not give up! Speak with your physician, pharmacist, therapist, best friend, family, or friend. There IS a way to achieve these goals, and it does NOT have to be overwhelming. Ask for help and make your plan.
· Choose three steps you wish to start in January. Practice them intentionally until they become habits.
· Choose three others you wish to implement in February and add them to your growing repertoire of brain health strategies. Feeling better yet?
· Add one more in March and pursue step #8 if you experience obstacles in implementing steps 1-7.
Where there is a will, there IS a way…at any age. Your team here at Retirement Unlimited, Inc. and your RUI community team members are here to help you achieve these goals in 2017! Please visit the community site tabs on our website to learn what we can offer you in 2017. You can also find us on Facebook, where we post regular updates of the purposeful living we share with our residents. We wish you a wealth of new experiences and personal growth.
Let’s go do some good.