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In my last column, I wrote about Brain Health Awareness month. The brain, the most complicated system in our bodies is often the most overlooked. When most of us think of health we may think of overall health or we may think of heart health but how often do we think in terms of brain health?

I would speculate that many of us change habits or behaviors based on the fear factor. We wait until there is a health crisis to take notice and adopt healthier patterns. For many of us it may be stepping on the scale that provides the impetus to eat better or healthier. Most of us don't think in terms of brain health unless we are fearful of developing Alzheimer's disease or one of the related dementias.

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As a part of normal aging our brains change. Our brains begin the gradual process of decreasing in volume as we age. Short-term memory may decline, reaction time increases, cognitive processing time increases, cognitive inflexibility increases, and the filter between our thoughts and words can become less inhibited. While these may be normal effects of aging we can try to minimize the progression of the effects of normal aging and potentially ward off the effects of "abnormal" brain changes such as the effects of dementia.

According to brainhealth.gov, brain health refers to the ability to remember, learn, plan, concentrate and maintain a clear, active mind. How do we achieve brain health? Maintaining overall health is the best way to protect the brain and minimize the overall effects of normal aging.

Improving overall health, minimizing risk factors and following simple steps can keep the brain active and sharp. Following a heart healthy regime also contributes to a healthy brain. Nutrition and eating smart, exercise, staying social, managing stress and continuing to learn and discover new interests are important to maintaining a healthy brain.

Here are some interesting facts about the brain that may help keep things in perspective: The brain is made up of 77-78 percent water, 10-12 percent fats and 8 percent proteins.

So here is where we begin to keep our brains as healthy as possible — water! Most of us are walking around chronically dehydrated and it takes its toll on our brains. In fact, as we age, dehydration may in fact cause confusion and memory loss. In a person living with dementia the effects of dehydration can be devastating.

Diet contributes a huge part in keeping a healthy brain. Our brains need healthy fats to function. However, maintaining a balance is so important. If you consider what is good for the heart is ultimately good for the brain, then eat a diet high in antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables and moderate in lean proteins and carbohydrates. The brain needs fats so some fat in the diet is therapeutic.

There is an ongoing debate about the use of cholesterol lowering drugs and the effect on the brain. The conundrum is to that to protect the blood vessels from plaque build-up that causes heart disease there may be some adverse effect on the brain. People are living longer due to the control of heart disease — although it is still the No. 1 killer of both women and men — thus living to the age when Alzheimer's disease and related dementias typically become obvious. Keep in mind the greatest risk for Alzheimer's disease is age. Also keep in mind the biggest risk associated with vascular dementia is hypertension, stroke and heart disease. So I am not advocating for anyone to stop their cholesterol-lowering medications because who wants to weigh those odds of a heart attack at a younger age versus an unhealthy brain at an advanced age?

The bottom line is to eat well and in moderation! And here comes the bombshell … just adding 30 minutes of exercise (like taking a walk) to drinking plenty of water, and eating reasonably well can significantly contribute to overall brain health.

While eating well, drinking plenty of fluids and walking are hallmarks of good overall health, the effects of socialization on the brain are undeniable. Those who are socially isolated and have very little contact and stimulation through relationships are known to have an increase in cognitive decline. Laura Carstensen, professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, reported in 2009 that our social arena "influences not only our happiness in everyday life but the ways in which our brains process information, the levels of hormones circulating in our bodies and our physiological responses to stress."

Stress, the other culprit adversely affecting brain health, leads to increased levels of cortisol, which essentially kills brain cells, decreases the production of new brain cells and can lead to shrinking of the brain, which leads to cognitive impairments. Controlling stress comes in the package with eating well (including foods high in antioxidants), exercising and socializing.

Finally, add something new and fun to your routine. Changing it up and learning something new has been found to be great for the brain. Try a new activity such as ladder ball, add knitting to your bucket list of things to learn or go buy a new, grown-up coloring book and don't worry about staying in the lines!

Eat well, drink your water, go take a walk with a friend, and come home to relax with a new activity and your brain will thank you! I'm on vacation and I'm going to the front porch to color!

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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