Diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and socialization are the key issues for mental health — and many of these are interconnected and interrelated

By James Ward

James Ward

I’m constantly challenged in working with people who have memory issues. Seniors? Elders? Usually, but sometimes the people are only in their mid-50s. Yes. It’s rare, but sometimes people in their mid-50s are already experiencing memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s.

I spend a lot of time reading medical newsletters and reviewing the results of scientific studies regarding brain issues, and I also listen to a lot of brain health lectures while I’m exercising. I’m intrigued by these studies and the information I gather.

Everybody has memory lapses such as where’s my cell phone, or where did I leave my keys, but is the memory loss something more substantial? I know of a few people who started to have memory problems, but they also had apnea, and a CPAP for better breathing and sleep completely reversed the memory issues. If you think that might be you, or a loved one, get a sleep test.

If the memory issues seem more severe, many doctors, and especially geriatric physicians and neurologists, can perform basic assessment memory tests to see how you’re doing. There are two initial levels of testing that can be done. The first is a basic assessment that is included in Medicare-funded annual wellness visits, and the second is a slightly longer mental status exam that’s the next step if your initial test shows that more testing is warranted.

But let’s roll back the clock to the years before any testing might be required. What can you do to maintain your health and never get to the point where you, or anyone else, thinks you might need some testing? What can you do to prevent memory issues and keep your brain functioning at a high level?

There are five main areas that always seem to be related to brain function, overall health, and healthy longevity. Living to 100 or 105 years old is only a great and wonderful milestone as long as you can still function and enjoy your days.

Diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and socialization. These are the key issues, and many of these are interconnected and interrelated.

Diet: Daily eating two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables has been associated with a lower level of dementia. One large national study indicated that only 13 percent of Americans eat enough fruit on a daily basis, and most studies indicate some of the best fruits to eat are berries, cherries, citrus, papaya, kiwis, grapes, apples, bananas, and pomegranates.

Exercise: You don’t need to join a gym and get sweaty for three hours a day, but you should try to exercise at least 20 minutes a day. The most active women in a test of more than 16,000 reduced their risk of death by 60 to 70 percent at the end of a four year study by averaging about 70 minutes a day of just walking. Not jogging or doing Zumba, but just walking.

Sleep: Some people need more, and some people need less, but think hard if you think you can thrive on less than seven hours a night or more than eight hours a night. Are you really outside the window of what most people need? Your brain doesn’t go to sleep when you sleep, but it goes through critical cleansing and rejuvenation stages when you’re getting the proper amount of sleep.

Stress: Studies point to the fact that stress really does kill. It also ages people faster. Do what you can to reduce your level of stress.

Socialization: Spend time with people. Talk to friends. Even a few minutes a day seems to help.

Think about what steps you can take now to extend the number of healthy days you have later.

James Ward
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