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Navigating Health: Six steps to help your aging brain's ability to function

The Center for the Study of Aging at McDaniel College recently presented their annual Alzheimer's/Dementia Symposium. Dr. Majed Fotuhi, a Neurologist specializing in Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, spoke about brain health and the six most important things we should all be doing to boost our brains.

There was plenty of good news mixed with a dose of reality: changes in our brain, leading to slowed cognitive performance begin by the age of 27!

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Yes our brain function peaks at age 26 and by the age of 27 the human brain begins to slow down. That's pretty surprising news. The rest of the bad news is that by the age of 40 the brain begins to atrophy or lose volume at the rate of .5% per year.

Atrophy can be secondary to stress, sleep disturbances, concussion, depression, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, smoking and diabetes. As the brain begins to atrophy people begin to have problems with decreased memory, sustaining attention, and the ability to process information quickly.

On the other hand, the good news — for those of us who admittedly have a terrible memory when it comes to names — there are many good reasons why we can't remember names. The list includes: hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism, depression, heart failure, obesity, high cholesterol, head trauma, poor sleep, too much work, information overload, sedentary lifestyle, fatigue, poor attention, poor diet and the "can't do it " mentality. So if we can't remember a name for the life of us then maybe it's just information overload.

As we age and our brains age therefore functioning at a sub-optimal level, we begin to notice subtle changes such as forgetting names, having difficulty at times with finding the right word, forgetting an appointment, or losing our keys just to name a few. What differentiates these normal aging brain lapses versus dementia or Alzheimer's changes? When someone begins to have difficulty with daily routines and when daily life is affected by memory loss, or the inability to process information and executive functioning problems (reasoning, problem solving and planning) there may be a problem with cognitive impairment.

What can we do to reverse some of the changes in the brain or slow the affects of aging? The good news is that with six simple steps we can positively affect the brain and it's ability to function. Fotuhi has researched and developed a 12-week "Brain Fitness Program" that has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus in the brain. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and is highly sensitive to stress, trauma (as in concussions) and environmental factors.

The hippocampus shrinks when the brain is stressed and is highly affected by sleep. Those with untreated sleep apnea are at high risk for developing memory impairments. The good news is that we can all stave off a shrinking hippocampus and in some cases of mild cognitive impairment, reverse the changes and hold off full-blown dementia.

How can we all work toward a healthier brain? We can exercise our brains and make it more "plastic" by following these six steps.

1. Exercise: Dr. Fotuhi recommends 45 minutes of walking a few times a week, which can make a huge impact on your brain health. Some research has indicted that 30 minutes a day of walking protects the brain.

2. Diet: Eating a Mediterranean diet high in omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, for example). He also included adding 1,000 mg of DHA as a daily supplement and eating turmeric, blueberries and chocolate.

3. Learning: Keep learning. You're never too old. Learn how to play golf, learn how to knit, take a class, anything that you haven't done. Learn something new every year.

4. Sleep: Get better sleep, treat sleep apnea.

5. Meditation: 30 minutes per day is optimal. Clear the clutter and stress from your brain.

6. Purpose: Find purpose in your life. Civic engagement is important to keeping the brain healthy.

These all make sense when you think of the hippocampus as a part of the brain that truly is affected by "use it or lose it." Exercise keeps the brain healthy and the heart healthy. Exercise also decreases stress and depression, all hippocampus stressors. They come hand in hand. Diet really does affect our brain's ability to function. Keeping the mind active but giving it a chance to rejuvenate is so important. And finally we all know that when one has no sense of purpose, depression and sadness lead to apathy and decreased will. People who have lost the sense of purpose often times seem to wither away. The hippocampus is highly sensitive to these changes.

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The take-home message from Fotuhi's talk: There is hope! There is no need to sit around and fear the dreaded Alzheimer's disease. Get up, get moving, get involved and eat for your brain and your heart. We all need to learn how to not "sweat the small stuff" and tell ourselves it's not worth losing our hippocampus over.

Jill Rosner is a registered nurse, certified geriatric care manager and owner of Rosner Healthcare Navigation. She provides patient advocacy and care management services to clients with health and aging issues. Contact her at JillRosnerRN@aol.com.

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