By Sandy Barnes
Comedian Bill Cosby has a joke about your brain heading southward as you age. The minute you sit down, you remember what it is you have forgotten, he says in one of his vintage routines on getting older.
For many senior adults, forgetting what it was you were about to do — or going on an extended search for misplaced glasses or car keys isn’t all that funny. While a few extra wrinkles and aches and pains are an acceptable part of growing older, facing the possibility of diminished mental functioning is another matter.
On the bright side, recent research done by the National Institutes of Health, which focused on cognitive functioning in 2,500 senior adults, suggests that there are things that people can do to help themselves stay mentally sharp as they age.
Number one on the list is exercise. According to the study, people who exercised regularly had higher levels of cognitive functioning than those who were inactive. Although the ideal amount is at least 30 minutes of daily exercise five times a week, even one day a week of physical activity can be helpful. A combination of aerobic exercise such as walking, bike riding, swimming and strength training is the gold standard for a fitness program. While aerobic exercise is best done daily, strength training is a two-to-three times a week activity for optimum results.
Eating a healthy diet that includes omega 3 fats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables is another important lifestyle choice for keeping the brain in good shape. According to nutrition studies, it’s no old wives’ tale that fish is brain food. The protein and omega 3 fats in wild Alaskan salmon and tuna are mentally nourishing. Other research suggests that drinking tea, especially green and white varieties, can be beneficial — as can a moderate amount of coffee.
The National Institutes of Health study also concluded that older non-smokers have a higher level of cognitive functioning than those who smoke. So it would be mentally wise to try giving up those cigarettes, if you have the habit.
Also in the healthy living department is the importance of getting adequate sleep each night. Among suggestions for peaceful slumber is keeping the bedroom dark and cool and going to bed about the same time each night. Avoiding heavy foods and caffeinated beverages several hours before bedtime and eating a light, low-sugar snack with chamomile tea before retiring for the night are other things people can to do help themselves sleep well.
Learning new skills also can help keep the brain in good working order, according to the NIH study, as well as other health experts. Mastering a computer program or learning another language can be beneficial, as can memorization exercises.
Another key factor in maintaining brain power is the degree of social connections people have, according to research. Older people who have friends and family nearby whom they see frequently and those who are part of community groups are less likely to develop mental problems such as Alzheimer’s disease than those who live more solitary lives.