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The Six Pillars of Brain Health

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Do you think you’re too old to grow additional brain cells? Think again! In AARP Virginia’s Six Pillars of Brain Health program, presented virtually by AARP Virginia Community Ambassador Rebekah Dailey, attendees learned how they can take charge of their brain health and improve their quality of life at any age. Throughout this interactive presentation, attendees shared information about what they are doing to help keep their brains healthy.

The Six Pillars presentation is based on current brain research, vetted by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health and AARP’s Staying Sharp program. Through this research, six lifestyle pillars that support brain health were identified:

1. Engage Your Brain
2. Stay Socially Engaged
3. Manage Stress
4. Exercise
5. Get Restorative Sleep
6. Eat Right

Dailey explained that brain health is more important than ever for several reasons. As we live longer, the risk for cognitive decline increases. Consequently, we desire good health to enjoy those extra years and experiences. People are also rethinking traditional concepts of retirement, with many either continuing careers longer or starting new ones, because of either personal or economic reasons.

Because we are living longer, rising health care costs are a concern, giving us additional incentive to be healthy longer. Finally, current research shows a brain-healthy lifestyle can optimize our chance of maintaining cognitive health.

The first pillar is Engage Your Brain or learn new things. This doesn’t need to be academic learning but instead finding ways to stimulate the brain by staying curious, pursuing new interests, and challenging your thinking. Some of the examples given by attendees include reading, taking classes, learning a musical instrument or language, and practicing complex crafts.

The second pillar is Be Social or stay socially engaged. Studies show that people with good social networks live longer and are physically and mentally stronger than those who are socially isolated. While the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed some limits on in-person social interactions, it is still possible to stay engaged with family, friends, and the community virtually, thus avoiding isolation. Attendees stated they take virtual classes or interact regularly online with family members and friends. Some engage in fun activities like online book clubs or game nights. Other ways to feel less socially isolated include adopting a pet or doing pet sitting.

AARP offers several free resources to help people stay social. Volunteering is a great way to meet and help others, and AARP’s Create the Good volunteer site offers many opportunities, including those that can be done from home. AARP’s Virtual Community Center has a wide variety of online interactive events and classes, as well as fun events. And if you know of someone who is feeling isolated or anxious, AARP’s Friendly Voice program can help by having volunteers call to check in or just chat at regular intervals.

Managing Stress is the third pillar. Stress management includes regular exercise, smiling and laughing, distraction using music and reading, and spending time outdoors in green spaces. Other ways to manage stress include confiding in friends, quieting your mind, limiting screen time, and taking deep breaths. Attendees added long walks, yoga or Tai Chi, and meditation or prayer as ways to help relieve stress.

The fourth pillar is Ongoing Exercise, which doesn’t have to be extensive provided movement is involved. Experts recommend at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, which can be broken down to 30 minutes per day, five days per week. Walking for endurance is the easiest way to start, but you should also incorporate strength training, flexibility, and balance activities into your exercise program.

Exercise is good for the brain and heart, and it helps relieve stress. Research shows that physical activity helps repair and protect chemicals in the brain, increase circulation, reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and stroke.

While you should find an activity you enjoy, it is important to talk to your health care provider before starting any new exercise program.

In addition to walking, ideas for moderate aerobic exercise include dancing, running, or biking. Some attendees mentioned they enjoy swimming and Zumba. It is also important to do strength training to help tone and strengthen muscles. Activities such as yoga or Tai Chi help with balance and flexibility.

Restorative Sleep, the fifth pillar, is important to brain health because it restores the brain and is essential to overall mental and physical health. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Set and stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule, even on the weekends. Expose yourself to natural (outdoor) light during the daytime, and avoid television, cell phones, and other electronics prior to going to bed. Remember that sleep patterns change as we age; older adults experience more interrupted sleep and may awaken or get sleepy earlier than younger people. Listen to your body and adjust your patterns as needed.

Some of the suggestions posted by attendees included keeping the sleeping room cool or using black-out curtains. Some meditate or drink warm milk to help them sleep. Other suggestions include keeping pets out of the bedroom and avoiding caffeine.

The sixth pillar is Eating Right. What you eat has a big impact on your brain. A brain-healthy diet consists of less meat and sweets plus consumption of more fish, nuts, beans, grains, leafy green vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil. Recommendations of healthy eating plans for good brain health include the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. In addition to the foods mentioned, eating whole berries and substituting salt with vinegar, lemon, or herbs and spices also support brain health.

Other suggestions from attendees were to eat whole foods and avoid foods that are processed. Increasing fresh vegetables, eating Greek yogurt, and oatmeal were also mentioned.

What are the risks to brain health? Incorporating the six pillars into your lifestyle are among the actions you can take to avoid these risks.

  • Smoking increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. If you smoke, try to stop or cut back.
  • Depression doubles the risk for cognitive decline. Remember that depression is not a normal part of aging. If you have depression symptoms, seek help from your health care provider.
  • Certain medications, including antihistamines, sleep aids, and some antidepressants, have been shown to increase the risk of dementia. Talk to your health care provider about medications you take, including over the counter products.
  • Diabetes damages blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain. It also increases the risk of heart disease, memory problems, and Alzheimer’s disease. Talk to your health care provider about ways to prevent diabetes or to keep your diabetes under control.
  • Heart disease increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Your health care provider call tell you if you are at risk.

As we age, it is normal to have memory issues, but there are several things we can do to help improve memory.

  • Establish a routine, including always putting things like keys and glasses in the same place.
  • Pay attention to things you want to remember. This could include repeating to yourself a task you need to do, like getting clothes out of the dryer, to prevent being distracted by other things.
  • Avoid multitasking. It’s better to focus on one thing at a time. Write down a list of things to do, check it often, and stick to it.
  • Take breaks. Tension and stress are associated with memory loss and managing stress can help improve memory.
  • Use calendars, reminders, and alarms. The mind is for having ideas, not holding them. Clear your mind and let these tools do your work.

Dailey concluded the presentation by encouraging attendees to incorporate the six pillars into their daily routines, even if they start by taking small steps. She also provided additional brain health resources:

The Six Pillars of Brain Health presentation is available on AARP Virginia’s YouTube Channel.

If you have questions about brain health or you're interested in learning more, tune in to our upcoming Facebook Live broadcast on Dec. 7 at 7pm. Bring your questions and hear from specialists in the field of brain health!

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