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The impact of physical health on our aging brains

NIAGARA, Wis. — Last week’s column discussed the fact that our brains age right along with the rest of our body. This week I will share some additional information from the National Institute on Aging that discusses how we can prolong the health of our brains as we progress through the inevitable aging process. It turns out that we do, indeed, have some control over the health of our brains.

Let’s begin with a definition. Brain health refers to how well our brain functions across several areas. First, and most widely known, it includes cognitive health, which refers to how well we think, learn and remember. It also includes motor function, which refers to how well we make and control our physical movements, including balance. This explains why so much emphasis is placed on fall prevention as we age. Third, it includes emotional function. Have we become overly anxious or less patient as we have gotten older? Or do we lose our tempers more easily or become easily agitated when our routines change? Finally, brain health also impacts tactile function. Have we become more sensitive to pressure, pain or temperature now that we are older? All of these functions are impacted by the health of our brain as we age.

Through research into the aging process, health experts have learned that by making even small changes across many aspects of our physical health, we can prolong the health of our brain’s ability to function well into old age. In general, be sure to see your primary care physician at least once a year; as you get a little older and depending upon your health issues, your physician may want to see you every six months. Get all recommended health screenings and manage any chronic health issues that may emerge, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and elevated cholesterol. When risk factors are properly managed, it prevents the onset of the actual disease.

Review your medications every visit and discuss any changes in response to any of them. Some medications begin to impact memory, sleep quality and brain function over time. Pay attention to your balance. Have you noticed that you have slowed down on stairs and actually need the hand rail to steady yourself? In fact, like me, you may have already completed the balance survey that becomes a part of each annual physical exam once you reach Medicare age. Simply being aware that balance can become an issue will help to make you more careful about how and where you walk. Even a minor fall when we are older can cause lasting physical damage.

Our enjoyment of alcohol necessarily changes as we age, because we simply cannot tolerate the same quantity as we could when we were younger. And, some necessary medication does not combine well with alcohol. Quit smoking and avoid any other products that contain nicotine. No matter how long you have had a tobacco habit, it is never too late to quit. Over time, smoking kills the tiny capillaries that carry oxygenated blood to all places in your body: your teeth, your lower extremities and your brain cells especially. Finally, get enough sleep — at least seven to eight hours each night is recommended for optimum brain and overall physical health.

Elevated blood pressure continues to be called the silent killer; we can walk around with it and not be aware of it at all because it doesn’t always have visible symptoms. Preventing its unwelcome arrival or controlling it if it has arrived is important to both physical and brain health. Left uncontrolled in midlife, it will most definitely lead to cognitive decline later in life. Your doctor may suggest more exercise, dietary changes or medication to prevent or control elevated blood pressure and, in turn, help protect your brain and your heart.

The phrase “you are what you eat” has never been more pertinent. Eating a healthy diet is imperative to both good physical and brain health. In general, a healthy diet includes: lots of fruits and vegetables; whole grains such as oatmeal and whole wheat pasta (yes, you can get used to it); lean meats, fish and poultry; and low fat or nonfat dairy products. We are never too old to drink a glass of skim milk! Stay away from the salt shaker. Limit portion sizes — actually measure until you can sense what a half cup really looks like — and drink enough water every day. Eight glasses of water are recommended and, yes, you will go to the bathroom more frequently but that’s okay.

Stay physically active for as long as you can. This doesn’t mean you have to jog around the block but keep doing your own household chores and yard work for as long as possible. Do simple weightbearing exercise like lifting 2- to 5-pound barbells. Various studies have linked physical exercise to the brain’s ability to continue to make important network connections and to make new ones as well. Also, exercise has been shown to increase the size of the brain structure responsible for memory and learning. Brisk walking has been shown to benefit brain health more than stretching and toning exercises.

Keeping the mind active also is important. Once we retire, we need to find ways to continue to stimulate our brains. We need to continue to learn new things, so now is the time to begin a hobby you never had time for when you were working. Activities such as reading, writing, quilting or even digital photography are all activities that require your brain to flex its muscle.

Also important to brain health is connecting with other people through social activities and community programs. You will feel less isolated and more engaged with the world around you, which is always a good thing. It has been proven that people who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others tend to live longer, maintain higher spirits and have a sense of purpose. Make lunch dates with friends, visit with family, consider volunteering for a cause that is meaningful to you, or join a group that is focused on a hobby you enjoy. If many of the people you know are no longer in the area, visit your local senior center and make new friends. Your local area agency on aging may be able to provide affordable transportation for you.

Finally, one of those indications of aging is a tendency to stress out over change — even good change. I have noticed this about both my husband and myself. We recently began a redecoration project of our master bedroom. All of the furniture has been moved to the dining room so my husband could paint, and we could get new carpeting installed. This project — as nice as the end result will be — has caused us so much stress. We had to work at staying positive by focusing on the end result and how refreshed the room would be when finished. The NIE also had these suggestions to combat stress: regular exercise, writing in a journal as a way of working through a stressful event, and relaxation techniques like mindfulness and breathing exercises to refocus the mind and channel thoughts down a more positive path.

And one final word about the importance of staying positive in order to maintain a healthy brain. We are in control of our thoughts and have the ability to refocus our minds from the negative to the positive. We can release old grudges and the worry associated with things beyond our control. We can practice gratitude. Let’s enjoy life while we still can, and take the steps to make the changes we need to make to stay in this world as long as we can.We now finally have the time to pause in our day to enjoy the comfort of a cup of tea or the beauty of a sunrise … or the fact that the birds are singing and the ice is gone from the river.

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NURSING HOMES

The usual senior living activity calendars and senior center menus will not be published this week in an effort to avoid confusion. Due to the coronavirus and the vulnerability of the elderly population, daily life in the senior living facilities and senior centers has changed dramatically.

We hope to report the opening up of senior living centers to limited visitation by family members in the near future. Until that time, all living facilities remain closed to public visitation, and the activity calendars have been modified to allow for one-to-one room visits only and individualized activities to keep residents engaged and active as much as possible while remaining within the health and safety guidelines provided by state health experts. Group games are being substituted with individualized activities residents can do in their respective rooms. Staff are providing supplies as well as “overhead announcement bingo and trivia” games and “hallway games” that can be played in individual rooms or by sitting within individual room doorways. YouTube and DVDs are being utilized to provide religious services. A big dose of gratitude and appreciation goes out to all senior care staff for their creativity, caring and perseverance through a difficult situation.

All senior centers also have been closed to any center-based activity. Until they reopen, no information is being published that talks about activities typically available at these centers. Meals continue to be delivered. Some centers are also preparing meals to be picked up. Menus are printed below for those centers who are either preparing take-out or providing home delivered meals. Questions can be directed to the individual centers at the numbers all listed below.

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SENIOR CENTERS

Alpha-Mastodon Center

906-875-3315

Amasa Center

906-822-7284

The Amasa Center is a curbside pick-up-only kitchen for now. Call ahead for Tuesdays through Thursdays. Menu for the week —

Tuesday: Beef stroganoff, noodles, California blend vegetables and lettuce salad.

Wednesday: Meat balls, mashed potatoes, peas and carrot coins.

Thursday: Lasagna, wax beans, lettuce salad and garlic bread.

Note: All meals served with milk, bread and butter, fruit and dessert.

Breen Center

906-774-5110

Call for home delivery or a to-go box. Menu for the week —

Monday: Pasty pie and stewed tomatoes.

Tuesday: Hot pork sandwich.

Wednesday: Egg bake, pancakes.

Thursday: Meat loaf, mashed potatoes and corn.

Note: All meals served with a choice of skim milk or juice and fruit.

Crystal Falls Center

Head cook: Lucy Korhonen

906-875-6709

Crystal Lake Center

Iron Mountain

906-239-0278

Home-delivered meals only. Menu for the week —

Monday: Cheese ravioli, Italian blend vegetables and garlic bread.

Tuesday: Chicken cordon bleu casserole, green beans and spiced peaches.

Wednesday: Beef stew, biscuit and cookie.

Thursday: Cabbage rolls, stewed tomatoes and biscuit.

Friday: Shrimp alfredo, noodles and broccoli.

Note: All meals served with a choice of skim milk, juice, or no beverage.

For more information, call Christine McMahon at 906-774-2256

Felch Center

906-246-3559

Now open with limited seating from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Menu for the week —

Monday: Omelets, hash browns and applesauce.

Tuesday: Spaghetti, meatballs, garlic bread and salad.

Wednesday: Sausage and sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and peas.

Note: All meals served with skim milk or juice.

Aging and Disability Resource Center of Florence County, Wis.

715-528-4890

Director: Tiffany White

Home-delivered meals only. Menu for the week —

Monday: Cook’s choice – entrée, vegetables and fruit.

Tuesday: Pasties, three bean salad, fruit and cookies.

Wednesday: Pork chops, black beans and rice, carrot coins, fruit and pudding.

Thursday: Mushroom Swiss burger, oven-roasted potatoes, spinach salad, fruit.

Friday: Lasagna roll-ups, green beans, dark green salad, bread sticks and fruit.

Note: All meals served with whole grain bread and butter and milk.

Fence Center/Town Hall

715-336-2980

For meal reservations, call 855-528-2372

Same as ADRC menu, home-delivered only.

Florence Community Center/Town Hall

For meal reservations, call 715-528-4261

Same as ADRC menu, home-delivered only.

Tipler Town Hall

For meal reservations, call 715-674-2320

Same as ADRC menu, home-delivered only.

Hillcrest Senior Dining Center, Aurora

For meal reservations, call 715-589-4491

Same as ADRC menu, home-delivered only.

(Continued on page 7-A)

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