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Posted: March 21, 2008

Caregiver Brain Fitness

Trying No-Sweat Workout to Save Your Mind in Old Age

Fitness has a new game. It’s no longer just about the body; the latest fitness focus is the mind. That’s because we can strengthen our brains and get amazing, long-lasting results – no sweat required.

This is great news for caregivers who often see firsthand the result of aging and disease on the brain of a loved one. A little intervention now may stave off or even prevent these effects as caregivers age.

In fact, caregivers stand to benefit immensely from brain fitness. Not only are they reminded daily of the results of the brain’s degeneration in those they care for, but caregivers are more at risk for a prematurely aging brain. This is because they are more likely than other segments of the population to suffer from stress and depression. Prolonged exposure to adrenal steroid hormones – like cortisol, which are released during stress – can damage the brain and block the formation of new neurons which are key to capturing new memories in our brains.

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Chronic stress, anxiety, depression, aging, decreasing estrogen, excess oxytocin, and prolonged cortisol all can decrease brain fitness. Studies published in the Journal of Immunology note actual changes in the chromosomes of Alzheimer’s disease caregivers, which amounted to a shortened lifespan of between four and eight years. This shows just how much the body’s cells aged in these caregivers.

Testing even found that in severe cases, caregivers take on the symptoms of the person they are caring for. For example, caring for a person with dementia will lead to memory loss.

Unlike Alzheimer’s, “ ‘Oldtimers’ is contagious,” says Ann in Virginia. “The more time I spend with Mom, the more it seems that my brain works like hers. Actually, it’s just that the world keeps shrinking if you let it. That’s why I try to find the good stuff – I search the Net to print off articles that Mom would approve. It does us both good.”

Other caregivers also turn to the Internet to play brain-stimulating games like sudoku, crossword puzzles, and mahjong.

Though we can’t stop the aging process or change our genetic predisposition, we can slow or even reverse their effects on our mental capacity. That’s good news! Scientists used to think we were born with all of the neurons we would have for our lifetime, and once they were lost, they could not be replaced. Not so.

Cognitive function can indeed be enhanced in normal mature adults. According to a 2006 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, “The brain retains a lifelong capacity for plasticity and adaptive reorganization.” This means that any decline in the brain should be at least partially reversible with a little focused effort.

All we need are a few simple lifestyle changes, according to Guy McKhann and Marilyn Albert, authors of Keep Your Brain Young: The Complete Guide to Physical and Emotional Health and Longevity. They conducted a study which tracked 3,000 people to determine what factors contribute to the maintenance of cognitive function. At the end of the 10-year study, some had maintained excellent mental function while others had not.

McKhann and Albert found that, “Those who maintained their mental abilities kept their minds active through such stimulating activities as reading books, doing crossword puzzles, using a computer, and going to lectures or concerts.”

A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms that participation in leisure activities is associated with a lower risk of dementia. But, change is the key; it’s not enough simply to do activities you’ve mastered. The way to gain brain fitness is through continuous learning of new skills and new abilities, and to adopt new hobbies and activities. Interestingly, McKhann and Albert support this premise, saying those who better maintain their mental abilities are less likely to be passively watching television.

Moving into her senior years, Leigh gets very creative in her attempt to stay brain healthy. Seeing the effects of dementia each day is all the motivation she needs. Plus, it’s enjoyable. This go-getter began a new career as a teacher at age 60 and has even gone back to graduate school! Conversely, Samantha in Texas incorporates her mother in her brain fitness efforts. She has been tracing her family’s genealogy, a project that sharpens her mind through research, while bringing wonderful memories back into her mother’s life.

Though there are myriad brain fitness programs available, studies show that one of the best ways to keep the brain stimulated is to be socially active. People provide the most unpredictable encounters we can have, and these encounters exercise the brain. The more social contact we have, the better we may be at retaining mental sharpness.

Research shows that people who are socially active suffer less mental decline and live more active pain-free lives without physical limitations than someone who is socially isolated. How socially active someone is, is actually a good way of predicting a person’s health and independence in later years.

Having a positive outlook keeps our brains healthy and ready to learn. Research shows that people who stay mentally sharp into old age depend on self-efficacy, or a feeling of self-worth and purpose in our lives. It requires an ability to adapt to life’s challenges without becoming overwhelmed by stress. High stress levels eat away at brain fitness and memory performance, so managing stress – especially in caregiving – is vital to staying positive and in turn, maintaining a healthy brain.

Brain fitness does require some attention to the body; after all, what’s good for your body is indeed good for your brain. Eating well, shedding extra pounds, getting moderate exercise and adequate sleep are all vital to a healthy brain. Vegetables, for example, especially cruciferous and leafy vegetables, have a particularly positive effect on learning and memory, and those containing antioxidants (vitamins C, E or A) reduce oxidative damage to brain cells, combating aging and cognitive decline. B vitamins like folic acid actually lower homocystene, a blood protein that is associated with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Keep in mind that aging is not necessarily a process of decline and that, in fact, we improve in many ways as we age. Consider our gifts and capabilities such as problem solving, wisdom, and skills we’ve refined over the years (including the skills required for caregiving). Honing all of these while learning new ones is precisely how we keep our brains in good working order.

ONLINE RESOURCES:

The Dana Foundation Guide to Brain Health

AARP Brain Health

Third Age Brain Fitness

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Lori Zanteson is a California-based freelance writer. She specializes in topics related to families and can be reached at lorizanteson@verizon.net.

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