Did you know that June Is Alzheimer’s And Brain Awareness Month? It was declared in 2014 by the Alzheimer’s Association to help raise awareness about the disease, as well as show support for the millions of people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. It’s also a time to recognize caregivers for the support they provide to those living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Every three seconds someone in the world develops dementia, with nearly 50 million people currently living with the disease worldwide. Perhaps more alarmingly, that number is expected to reach 132 million by 2050.
I am all too familiar with the disease. My mother suffered from it and spent many years in a nursing home that could give her the support, attention and care that she needed. And even though she may not have been able to recognize us anymore, or carry on a conversation, she seemed to be at peace in her bubble, listening to music and smiling. She remains one of the sweetest and most loving human beings I will ever encounter. Her spirit continues to smile and radiate love every day.
Having had this close to home experience with Alzheimer’s, I pay extra attention to preventative measures. That is why I support the Alzheimer’s Association to encourage Americans to make brain health a priority. Especially as we return to living a normal life as we get to the other side of Covid-19. This past year has been extremely challenging. Stress, depression, frustration, anxiety, and mood swings have all increased and impacted our quality of life. And quality of life dramatically impacts our ability to stay healthy and maintain a strong immune system to ward off illnesses.
So how do we flip the switch? Here are some suggestions from the Alzheimer’s Association to help us restore our mental well-being.
1. Recommit to brain-healthy basics
Evidence suggests that healthy behaviors took a back seat for many Americans during the pandemic. Gym memberships were put on hiatus, social engagement became more challenging and many Americans swapped out healthful eating for their favorite comfort foods, take-out meals and frequent snacking while working remotely. One study published recently found participants gained nearly 1.5 pounds per month over the past year, on average. The Alzheimer’s Association — through its U.S. POINTER Study — is examining the role lifestyle interventions, including diet, may play in protecting cognitive function. Right now, many experts agree that people can improve their brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, preferably in combination, including:
Exercise regularly — Regular cardiovascular exercise helps increase blood flow to the body and brain, and there is strong evidence that regular physical activity is linked to better memory and thinking. Protect your brain by wearing a helmet when cycling or playing contact sports. Prevent injuries through strength training and being careful to avoid falls.
Maintain a healthy heart — Stick to a meal schedule full of fruits and vegetables to ensure a well-balanced diet. Some evidence suggests a healthful diet is linked to cognitive performance. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are linked to better cognitive functioning and help reduce risk of heart disease as well. Evidence shows that risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke — obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes — negatively impact your cognitive health. Take care of your heart, and your brain just might follow.
Get proper sleep — Maintaining a regular, uninterrupted sleep pattern benefits physical and psychological health, and helps clear waste from the brain. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night and try to keep a routine bedtime.
Stay socially and mentally active — Meaningful social engagement may support cognitive health, so stay connected with friends and family. Engage your mind by doing activities that stump you, like completing a jigsaw puzzle or playing strategy games. Or challenge yourself further by learning a new language or musical instrument. Build a piece of furniture. Complete a jigsaw puzzle. Do something artistic. Play games, such as bridge, that make you think strategically. Challenging your mind may have short and long-term benefits for your brain.
Stop smoking – Evidence shows that smoking increases risk of cognitive decline. Quitting smoking can reduce that risk to levels comparable to those who have not smoked.
Show Gratitude – Be thankful and grateful to be alive, healthy, happy and safe. Life is short, there is uncertainty and constant change. Appreciate the little things for they are the most important.
2. Return to normal at your own pace
Many Americans are eager for a return to normal life following the pandemic, but others are anxious. In fact, one recent survey found that nearly half of adults (49%) report feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. For those feeling anxious, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests taking small steps. It may also be important to set boundaries and communicate your preferences to others in your social circles.
3. Help others and be socially engaged
There is evidence to suggest that helping others during the pandemic may not only make you feel better, but it may be good for you as well. Research shows that helping others in a crisis can be an effective way to alleviate stress and anxiety. One study published during the pandemic found that adults over age 50 who volunteer for about two hours per week have a substantially reduced risk of dying, higher levels of physical activity and an improved sense of well-being. To help others and yourself during June and throughout the year, volunteer in your community, run errands or deliver meals to a home-bound senior or donate to a favorite cause, such as supporting participants in the Alzheimer’s Association’s The Longest Day event on June 20. Staying socially engaged may support brain health. Pursue social activities that are meaningful to you. Find ways to be part of your local community — if you love animals, consider volunteering at a local shelter. If you enjoy singing, join a local choir or help at an after-school program. Or, just share activities with friends and family.
4. Unplug and disconnect
Technology has dominated our daily lives during the pandemic like never before. While technology has kept us connected through COVID-19, it has also created fatigue for many Americans. Experts warn that excessive stimulation coming from our phones, computers, social media sources and news reports can add to our already heightened anxiety levels. To avoid technology overload, experts advise setting limits on your screen time, avoid carrying your phone everywhere, and disconnecting from digital devices at bedtime.
5. Control your stress before it controls you
In small doses, stress teaches the brain how to respond in healthy ways to the unexpected, inconvenient or unpleasant realities of daily life. Prolonged or repeated stress, however, can wear down and damage the brain, leading to serious health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, memory loss and increased risk for dementia. Reports indicate that Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers are especially vulnerable to physical and emotional stress. The Alzheimer’s Association offers tips to help manage caregiver stress. Meditation, exercise, listening to music or returning to a favorite activity you have missed during the pandemic are just some ways to manage stress. Do what works best for you.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been an overwhelming time for all of us,” said Amelia Schafer, Executive Director of AA in Colorado. “It’s important for people to know there are steps we can take to lessen the stress and anxiety we might be feeling. It can be easy to take brain health for granted, but now more than ever, it’s a good idea to make it a priority.” Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns.
Learn more about the Alzheimer’s Association, available resources and how you can get involved to support the cause, visit alz.org.
With Light and Love especially for our Brain this month,