Meena was 62, in the pink of health but often she used to experience what we know as “senior moments” – i.e. she’d stop mid-sentence forgetting what she was speaking, lose track of conversations, and would sometimes forget names of people and places. Forgetting names, words, disorientation, or inattention, all these are quite commonly observed and experienced among the senior citizens in our families, aren’t they?
Unfortunately, we are very quick to self-diagnose these behaviors as “Dementia” or “Old age problems that are permanent”. But what if I told you that the latest scientific research consistently proves that healthy aging is possible? That it’s possible to preserve and promote our cognitive functions with age?
BRAIN AGEING – THE ‘WHY?” – simplified
Our brain is made up of billions of neurons (cells). While regularly interacting with our environment through studying, exercise, socializing, solving problems- these neurons interconnect and build strong networks of thinking, language, learning, coordination which help us function optimally. As we grow older, and the opportunities to stay cognitively or physically active are reduced, these neuronal connections become weak because we don’t use them as often, and slowly they die away. This is called Neurodegeneration, a natural neurological process of ageing, commonly found among people 60 years and above.
In addition, we have Immunosenescence, a condition in the immune system is now deteriorating gradually due to natural age advancement. As a result, cells that used to fight off infection are now attacking their cells which leads to chronic low-grade inflammation – a process called “Inflammaging” – a term coined by Franceschi et al. in 2000. Findings are usually consistent that these 3 processes are linked with increased risk of cognitive decline (forgetfulness, inattention, disorientation, etc.), and dementia among the elderly.
Researchers from Semmelweis University, Budapest; Rush University Medical Center Chicago also suggests that some lifestyle risk factors may further worsen one’s cognitive decline like lack of exercise, low nutrition, reduced cognitive engagement, obesity, high stress, and isolation – All of which are common lifestyle patterns among our elderly.
HEALTHY AGEING – THE “HOW?”
So can we help our elderly preserve their cognitive health?
YES – All thanks to the brain’s proven property of NEUROPLASTICITY where “Neuro” refers to neurons and plasticity refers to the malleability/adaptability of our brain. i.e. our brain can change in all stages of life, even in old age. With repeated exposure to enriched environments and new learnings, our neurons generate connections (Neurogeneration), rewire, reorganize and even strengthen themselves ultimately changing the brain’s structures and functions which help keep our brain healthy. For example, in 2011 Sarah Lazar and her team at Harvard found that after an 8-week meditation program, the hippocampus (memory center) of the brain became thicker and the people reported an improvement in their memory and learning skills. Additionally, there were also decreases in the brain cell volume of the amygdala (controls fear, stress, and anxiety) and the people reported better mood regulation and psychological wellbeing.
Thus, the aim for us is to create opportunities for our senior citizens to engage in enjoyable cognitively stimulating activities, repeatedly, to help optimize their cognitive functions, and possibly decrease the cognitive losses that senior citizens experience with age. Essentially, it’s like engaging with a brain gym at home, where our senior citizens can strengthen their brain muscles, increase brain flexibility and their cognitive stamina through practice!
Here are 4 effective methods to keep our elderly cognitively active through activities that are anti-inflammatory, boost immunity and encourage Neurogeneration and Neuroplasticity.
- Keep learning and mix it up! – Neurobiologists at the University of California – Irvine revealed that learning promotes brain health — thus suggesting that mental stimulation could limit the debilitating impact of aging on cognitive wellbeing. So encourage your elders to keep learning and mix it up regularly. Learning can come in any form! for example, they can learn new instruments, language, how to use technology, paint, table tennis, etc. anything which activates the memory and problem-solving center of the brain in real-time. During this pandemic, there are many online activities, projects, workshops, and campaigns designed especially for senior citizens. So bring these learning opportunities to your homes and jog those brain cells!
- Maintain a healthy balance of neuromodulators -it’s the time to DESCO (Dopamine, Endorphins, Serotonin Cortisol, Oxytocin)
- Dopamine – plays an important role in memory, learning, interest in activities, motivations, better attention and focus, and rewarding feeling.
- Activities to release Dopamine naturally – exercise, yoga, dance, competitions through games like UNO, Tombola, Ludo, keep a checklist of things to do in one day and cross it off, record small accomplishments (journal or voice record) and share it with loved ones, meditation, cleaning the house, sorting cupboards, clothes in categories for convenience, receiving compliments and appreciation from loved ones are some examples.
- Endorphins and Serotonin – feel-good chemicals, regulate mood, pleasurable experiences, happy feeling, calm, energizing, pain regulation, sleep, and digestion regulation, boost self-esteem, reduce stress.
- Activities to release Endorphins and Serotonin naturally – engage in repeated, creative and challenging activities like knitting, yoga, weight training, exercise, laughter sessions, mediation, nature walks, dance, singing and playing instruments, painting craftwork, origami, socializing with friends, helping others (volunteer work) are some examples.
- Oxytocin – engages emotional recognition, memory encoding and consolidation, feelings of love, trust and relationship building, social responsiveness, and human bonding
- Activities to release Oxytocin naturally – by human contact, cuddling, hugging, kissing loved ones, expressing love verbally to each other, group interactions like antakshari, kitty parties, music circles, drum circles, dance or yoga sessions, cooking for your loved ones, playing with or petting furry pets, and doing something nice for others (helping others, NGO volunteering, community service, contribute to residential welfare efforts, etc.)
- Cortisol – is your body’s built-in alarm system that regulates your flight or fight response to stress, regulates blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep cycle, and boosts energy so you can handle stress and restore the body balance gradually. Research indicates that as we age, the brain may slowly lose its skills at regulating cortisol appropriately – and so a constant increase or decrease of cortisol due to long term stress, worries, anxieties may be associated with damage to the memory part of the brain (hippocampus), increased risk of dementia, and even speeding the process of aging. The American psychological association also reports that reducing stress in one’s senior years contributes to reducing trips to hospitals, and preventing health problems.
- Activities to balance Cortisol naturally – Lets bust that stress together by learning scientifically based stress management techniques from mental health professionals, participate in regular yoga, meditation, support groups,, relaxation techniques, golf, stitching, cooking, theatre, laughter groups, counselling sessions, regulate sleep cycle, nutritious balanced diet, music, dance, healthy socialisation are some examples.
3. Growing old is mandatory but Feeling old is optional!
Researchers at North Carolina State University found that senior citizens who think that older people should perform poorly on memory tests scored much lower than the seniors who did not believe this negative stereotype about aging. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy. A study in 2019 in Boston reported that an optimistic perspective of aging is related to an average of 11 to 15% longer life span, and to better odds of living up to 85 years or beyond! It is high time we reframe our beliefs in synch with the latest neuroscientific and technological advancements and discoveries about healthy aging, and memory preservation. So keep a positive attitude, practice gratitude, stay cognitively active and remind yourself that “My brain can change – healthy aging is possible for me!”. These days all the dread around Covid can be very demotivating and disheartening for our senior citizens stuck at home. Encourage them to switch off the WhatsApp university at regular intervals for a detox, limit their television intake and activate their brain through the fun ideas given above and go beyond it creatively to boost their brain health!
4. Be vigilant! – The World Health Organisation defines healthy aging as an individual’s ability to-
- Meet their basic needs
- Learn, grow and make decisions
- Be mobile
- Build and maintain relationships
- Contribute to society.
If you observe a significant decline in any of these categories for the elderly, please reach out to qualified health professionals for a thorough evaluation and holistic intervention recommendation.
Advances in research, technology, and healthcare interventions are paving the way for better mental and physical fitness for our senior citizens. Let’s believe in science and help them live active and meaningful lives, together.
About the author –
Banika Ahuja is a psychologist and founder of B.Neurofit – catering to the mental and cognitive healthcare needs of senior citizens and young adults in India. Banika has recently received an unconditional offer to pursue a Doctorate in clinical psychology from the renowned University College London, U.K. This is the most important step of her career for now to ensure that she has the qualifications, training and exposure to continue her contributions to improving the global mental health scenario of our country through accessible and highly competent clinical practice, ground level policy changes, mass sensitisation and impactful neuroscientific research.
🌺She is raising funds to support her further education. Please click the link below to watch the video, and read more about the cause and donate should you feel like it.
Looking forward to your support!: )