Keeping Brains Healthy Across the Lifespan: Is It Really As Easy As Counting to 5?

Photo Credit: Allan Bergman

Photo Credit: Allan Bergman

Research over the last 20 years on the impact of lifestyle on brain health indicates that how people live each day can strongly influence the delay and potential prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. To appreciate the full weight of these findings, the World Alzheimer’s Report 2014 estimates that if dementia is delayed for just five years, incidence would be cut by half! By 2030, this delay translates to nearly 44 million people who will not succumb to dementia, and estimated financial savings for individuals, their families and global health systems is projected to exceed $600 billion.

Risk for age-related brain disease, the number one fear of people over 50 in the USA, begins decades before symptoms appear. The appeal of embracing a protective lifestyle is a welcomed alternative and becomes increasingly important from middle age onward. While the brain’s plasticity across the lifespan means that it is never too late to benefit from healthy lifestyle choices, the rule of ‘use it or lose it’  implies that loss of unused neural networks, skills and healthy habits are harder to recapture the older people get.

Figuring out how to live each day may not be so simple. Though multiple studies show a difference in types of daily activities for people who did not develop dementia versus those that did, pinpointing WHAT activities is complex. Researcher Jaak Panksepp’s work sheds light on wired at birth brain networks that need to stay active across the entire lifespan to effectively promote survival and longevity for mammals. These include seeking, play, care and restoration. Scientific news reports also tout the importance of sleep, exercise, diet, leisure activities, antioxidants and other factors supporting brain health. In general, beneficial lifestyle activities create awareness and reflection, involve physical activity, promote heightened engagement and connection to people, pique interest, and more.

Frequency counts! The above-referenced research suggests that those who did not develop dementia engaged in at least five beneficial activities per day, five days a week. Given that average cognitive decline for people over 60 is 1-2 percent per year, frequency appears to be very important to avoid this slippery slope. Actual improvement in cognitive function will also likely require MORE than these activity levels. For most, this runs counter to conventional thinking about aging, which tells people to slow down or retire as they age.

Brains are better off if individuals participate in beneficial activities such as good sleep, exercise, learning and play; and people engage in interesting, fun hobbies five times a day, five days a week. Due to the slippery slope of decline per year, people need to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives by staying active. The goal is not to overwork the body to keep brains healthy, so below are two mechanisms that promote wholesome lifestyles and offer protection if people take time out because of illness, injury, or vacation.

1. The longer people engage in beneficial activities, the more cognitive reserves they build, which protect against cognitive decline. Education and physical exercise are the primary ‘reserve’ builders. Education across the lifespan is the best way to maintain and improve brain functioning, and the more physical exercise people do over many years, the greater resiliency their bodies have to fight unhealthy aging. Reserves will kick in for protection if injury, illness or an abundance of stress occurs. Even those with ailments can partake in tailored activities that ensure the highest possible quality of life.

2. It is possible to multiply the benefit of each activity by adding ‘boosters’. There are a number of ways to do this, but for simplicity’s sake, counting to five is ideal:

  • Add social engagement to any activity throughout each day.
  • Weave a physical element into whatever you are doing – work up a sweat as you vacuum, go for a walk while on the phone, take action breaks when sitting for extended periods.
  • Choose activities that are meaningful to you – be with people you care about, do things you consider important and have always wanted to do.
  • Love what you do! Choose activities that make you and others laugh, that make you feel great, and that bring out the best in you.
  • Try new things, meet new people, stretch your mind and body in ways you have not done before.

By counting to five – five activities a day, five days a week, five boosters that add up to five more years of brain health – one can reap a potential lifetime of health benefits for both the brain and body.

Joan Parsons, MBA and MS Certificate in Interpersonal Neurobiology, is founder and CEO of Lifestyle Rewired. The company offers lifestyle assessments, High Value Activity Programs and Immersion Travel Programs that enrich and protect brain health. Joan’s mother Sally developed dementia in her 70’s, becoming the inspiration to identify how such a vital woman could succumb to brain disease at a relatively young age. Researching hundreds of studies on the impact of lifestyle on the brain enabled the team to develop concepts and models to support life long brain health, hence Lifestyle Rewired was born. The company’s programs and tools focus on activities that inspire learning, new experiences, and meaningful human connection. 

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