You've probably heard the term "use it or lose it" before, and when applied to an aging senior's brain, the advice becomes critical. Not only will the risk of dementia, memory impairment and stroke all increase with age, but situations where seniors find themselves lonely or isolated can cause harmful, physical changes to the brain.
Still, cognitive decline is by no means inevitable and, with some help from a family member, or a professional caregiver, these four tips could stimulate your loved one’s brain and help to keep it active for longer.
How Seniors Can Stay Sharp
Your loved one’s brain isn’t a muscle, but it might be helpful to think of it as one. The more it flexes, the better conditioned it will be. There are distinct ways to keep your loved one's mind active: reading, crosswords, Sudoku or playing games will all help. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) says that these type of activities can help by building a "cognitive reserve.”
Some activities may be better than others. The best brain training activities according to Harvard Med are:
- Difficult – try new things, or make existing ones more difficult
- Complicated – the best activities have a mix of thought processes, like problem solving and creativity
- Involve practice – if your loved one has to repeat a task more than once, memory function is being used, and improved
Creative pursuits can also help. Painting or playing an instrument is a challenging mental activity. It may be that even listening to music has benefits. Studies have shown that participating in artistic pursuits can reduce loneliness and depression, and increase dexterity, as well as having cognitive benefits.
Your loved one’s physical condition may determine what kind of activities are viable. A professional caregiver can help seniors exercise the mind as well as their body. In addition to offering help around the home, caregivers can visit your senior to offer companionship and help do the things your loved one enjoys. Many activities that can help to stimulate your senior mentally, like playing board games or cards, require another person to be involved and for seniors who are less able to socialize outside of the home, a professional caregiver could help to facilitate these and other activities.
Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices
According to doctors from Harvard, general fitness helps body and mind, so keeping your senior active can help to slow memory loss and cognitive decline. If the pulse is raised, then more blood is flowing in the brain, so gentle exercise can be a big help. Be aware of your loved one’s limitations. Falls can be deadly so it may be better to take a stroll when you are present, or with a professional caregiver who is trained in fall prevention.
Other healthy lifestyle choices Harvard Medical advises can slow mental decline include:
- Getting sufficient sleep
- Not smoking
- Limiting alcohol
- Eating a balanced diet
As well as helping your loved one exercise, a professional caregiver can assist with meal preparation to ensure that your loved one is eating nutritious, well-balanced meals.
Any mental stimulation is good for your loved one, but studies show that learning new things can be the most beneficial form of mental activity. Harvard Med says that your brain can still grow even as you age and new, and perhaps more challenging, tasks may help your loved one’s brain to compensate for the decline usually associated with old age. The American Society for Aging suggests that life-long learning can even help to stave off dementia.
The options for what to learn are virtually unlimited. What does your loved one enjoy doing? A history buff could spend hours online reading Wikipedia entries. Seniors probably didn’t have the same opportunities to learn an instrument in their youth as younger people might have, learning to play a new instrument could be stimulating and fun. Learning a new language would be challenging, exciting and might even open up travel possibilities. Studies also show that knowledge gained later in life tends to stay with seniors years later, so your senior may pick up a new skill he can enjoy for years to come.
For active seniors, there should be plenty of options. See if local senior centers offer classes. Participation in lifelong learning can also help with socialization, another critical factor in mental wellness. If your loved one attends classes at a senior center, she could also be making new friends. Your local library may also offer classes that may interest your senior.
Being housebound won’t hinder your senior’s opportunities to stimulate the brain. Introduce him to a fun app on a phone or tablet. Check books out of the library. Find online classes that may interest your senior. Companion care can be quite useful here, as a professional caregiver will be happy to talk to him about a new interest and help to further learning in any way possible.
The NIA says that several studies have shown a link between social interaction and health. Seniors who have a strong social support network have been shown to have lower levels of cognitive impairment than those who do not. Seniors who are frequently socially active had the risk of cognitive decline decrease by an average of 70 percent.
The same study found that having a range of social activities gave the most significant chance of avoiding cognitive decline, so even though your senior loves your visits, you should try to arrange a broader range of social opportunities rather than just relying on your visits. If your loved one is well enough, then visiting friends or a senior center could be a great way to keep active.
If your senior is less mobile, hiring a professional caregiver to provide companion care is a great option. The caregiver will have experience of relating to seniors and can help your loved one to stay socially stimulated. While the professional caregiver visits, he or she could also help your loved one around the house with things like chores that may be getting to be too much.
Along with cognitive benefits, there could also be other health benefits to being social. Socially active seniors have lower instances of interleukin-6, which can be a factor in disorders such as Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer.
The benefits of staying social are enormous. Learn more about the importance of avoiding isolation in the elderly by clicking here.