Healthy Brain, Healthy Heart

FirstCare Nursing Homes are leading nursing homes in Ireland. FirstCare has provided nursing home care for older adults and frail patients for over 14 years. A project coordinator for dementia care, Jane Bryne, discusses improving brain and heart health.

How are the brain and heart connected?

The brain and heart are two vital organs in the human body. Unknown to many, the brain and heart are more connected to one another than previously thought. A study confirmed that ensuring optimal health of the two organs will lead to the efficiency of the other. This means that having a healthy heart is related to lower dementia risk and a slower rate of cognitive decline.

It was also found that the cardiovascular system, operating in peak performance, supports the proper functioning of the brain, thus leading to sharper memory and best use of one’s intellectual capability. Also, failing to maintain optimal cardiovascular health damages the brain’s fundamental anatomic structure, which can eventually lead to various mental health conditions like dementia.

What’s the link between dementia and heart health?

A new study found that people who have good cardiovascular health are less likely to get dementia. The study concluded that leading a physically active lifestyle, maintaining a healthy diet, and avoiding alcohol and smoking, are sure-fire ways to reducing the tendency of suffering from dementia later in life.

In another study published in the journal Neurology, doctors researched 1,200 older adults who gave consent to brain autopsies after death. The findings were surprising because those who had high blood pressure showed signs of dementia.

Is there hope for people with dementia?

Dementia is not a dead end for older adults who have the condition. They can live the healthiest life possible even with dementia.

How can older adults have a good quality of life?

Housing has a huge effect on older adults’ mental health. Easy access to health infrastructure and recreation centers have been shown to be crucial to physical and mental health.

What’s your take on embracing the aging process?

A change of mindset is needed and research has shown that those who have positive views of aging are less likely to develop later the brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

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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. 

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

Photo Credit: Pixabay
                                                                                                                          Photo Credit: Pixabay

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Worldwide, there are at least 44.4 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia’s. Dementia is a non-communicable disease and one of the main health challenges for the elderly in continents such as Africa and Asia. The current health systems of these continents are not designed to meet such chronic care needs, hence dementia is set to become a major problem in the long run.

The World Alzheimer report 2013, from Alzheimer’s Disease International, estimated that by 2050 the number of people living with dementia would rise from 44.4 million to 135.5 million. The proportion living in low- and middle-income countries would rise from 62% to 71% therefore much of the increase will be in developing countries. If current population trends continue, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will increase significantly unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented. The increase in population aging is also linked to Alzheimer’s since the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age. China, India, and their south Asian and western Pacific neighbors are the fastest growth in the elderly population.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and may contribute to 60–70% of cases and dementia is one of the most common diseases among elderly people. It is a leading cause of disability, institutionalization, and mortality; therefore it has a tremendous impact on both the individual and society. This month, there are many ways to help raise awareness and inspire action. These include:

  • Talk about Alzheimer’s each time you meet other people
  • Post, tweet and share the facts about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia’s
  • Show your commitment to the cause by wearing purple, the official color of the Alzheimer’s movement

According to World Health Organization, health systems around the world, especially in Africa and Asia need to adapt to meet the chronic care needs of the elderly as the shift to aging populations gathers pace in low- and middle-income countries in the world. As populations age rapidly, infrastructure must be put in place to address the needs of elderly with dementia. The United Kingdom is a great example because they are leading the way in tackling the global crisis of dementia. These are not limited to websites about dementia, books that raise awareness of dementia among young people, or hosting the 2013 G8 Dementia Summit in London. The 2013 G8 Dementia Summit launched the World Dementia Council that exists to stimulate innovation, development and commercialization of life enhancing drugs, treatments and care for people with dementia, or at risk of dementia, within a generation.

This June, let’s observe Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Everyone who has a brain is at risk to develop Alzheimer’s – but everyone can help to fight it, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The goal is for the public to get involved and hopefully end Alzheimer’s disease.

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.