Seven Ways to Promote Your Parents’
Better Brain Health

Our parents are not invincible or immune to the aging process. As a Sandwich Boomer (that’s “middle aged with young kids and retired parents”), I can tell you this fact of life firsthand. That realization, along with thoughts about my own aging process, was shortly followed by the recognition that, reaching a certain age, we will all experience the normal decline of our physical and mental health. It’s inevitable. But what can we do about it, and how can we help our parents enjoy longer and healthier lives? Ultimately, we can’t stop what is predetermined by age and genetics. But we can offset or delay the aging process to some degree, and the answer begins by understanding and practicing the Keys to Better Brain Health with our parents.

A healthy mind is essential to a healthy, active life. Many gerontologists (specialists in the study of aging) acknowledge and agree upon 7 keys to brain fitness, including: Exercise; Mental Stimulation; Diet & Nutrition; Stress Management; Social Interaction; Quality Sleep; and a Sense of Purpose, Meaning and Connection. Each one of these areas is important. But, together, they act as a kind of multivitamin of the mind. And, many gerontologist- and physician-recommended activities for brain health cover more than one of these key areas. Let’s take a look at each one.

Most of us can’t stand exercise, and it doesn’t get any easier with age. But it’s critically important to mental health. Exercise increases circulation and blood flow in all directions, including to the brain. This circulation improves physical coordination and motor skills and helps boost the immune system. Exercise can protect against diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, which make us prone to dementia later in life. And it’s never too late. Research shows that late starters can still receive the benefits of an exercise regimen. For those of use who aren’t fans of exercise, replace the word with “physical activity.” Some great examples of this are gardening, walking, or even having a game of fetch with the dog. Bottom line: Get your parents to do as much as they can, as safely as they can, as often as they can.

Mental Stimulation
Like exercise, this is one of those “use it or lose it” categories. Those who use their minds, actively and often, are less likely to lose cognitive function over time than those who don’t. This includes everything from fun activities such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku to group activities such as cards and bingo, or educational courses and book clubs. Some activities, such as dancing classes, offer both mental and physical stimulation in a social situation. The key here is to choose a variety of intellectually stimulating activities that are both interesting to your parents and are also mentally demanding. You don’t want to frustrate Mom or Dad, but the more demanding the better. Think of the brain as the muscle that needs the most exercise.

Diet & Nutrition
It can’t be overstated: Food is the fuel for mind and body, and everything your parents eat affects every other aspect of their life, especially if he or she is overweight or genetically predisposed to heart disease and diabetes. What should they be eating? Let’s start with the obvious: A balanced diet featuring fish, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, with little or no junk food. As a rule, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and the diet that helps maintain a healthy weight is a must. Eating the right foods will not only lower the risk of Alzheimer’s, it will also improve cognitive and motor skills and reduce the risk of stroke.

Need more specifics? A good diet is one rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fish), nuts (walnuts and almonds), fruits (especially berries) and vegetables (dark leafy green is best), oat bran, and Vitamin B. Make sure to keep the carbohydrates and trans fats down. And, don’t let them skip meals! As your parents age, their appetite can fade, but the brain works best on a steady flow of fuel and energy. Skipping meals causes sharp increases in blood glucose.

One more thing: A new study has found that Vitamin B12, found in healthy meat, fish and milk products, may protect against brain volume loss in older people. This research, published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that people who had higher Vitamin B12 levels were six times less likely to experience brain shrinkage than those who had lower levels of the vitamin in their blood. Good to know!

Stress Management
This is a really interesting and challenging topic when it comes to senior care. We know that stress is harmful to our mental and physical health. We also know, thanks to research, that chronic stress has a cumulative effect on seniors, affecting their ability to remember and learn. It can also contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease. But how do we offset years of chronic stress? And how do we address the stress that our parents may feel today with regard to financial issues or deteriorating health? The answer is to find out what lowers your parents’ stress levels. For some, it’s gardening. For others, it’s having a grandchild on their lap. These days, it could be helping your parents make sure that their finances are looked after and they have protection against fraud. Whatever it is, do a lot of it. There’s no other way to say it. Adopt a pet, (cats are fairly low maintenance; dogs are a good reason to take a walk), and help them take care of it. Bring them fresh flowers once a week. Get out the family scrapbooks. (We love doing scrapbooks with seniors. Great activity!) Surround them with the things that make them happy. That’s the simplest and best antidote to stress.

Social Interaction
I can sum this up in just a few words: help your parent to stay connected! As time goes by, this may become more difficult, but friends and good conversations never go out of style, especially when seniors become housebound and can’t participate fully in events or gatherings. For the purposes of our 7 keys to Better Brain Health, this doesn’t include interaction with immediate family members. (I’ll talk about that in a moment.) This refers to socializing with old friends, new friends and neighbors—whether it’s a card game, or just sitting around and talking about family or current events. Socializing as much as possible, with its requirements for them to focus and hold up their end of the conversation, helps keep your parents’ minds healthy and alert. It also reduces stress.

One personal observation: I’ve learned that political discussions can become heated among seniors. One senior that we know is a Democrat among many Republicans; and, unfortunately, political conversations are stressful these days. My recommendation: Life is too short and too precious, especially at this stage, to focus on subjects that lead to arguments. Avoid them if at all possible.

Quality Sleep
Although researchers are still trying to better understand the mysteries of a good night’s sleep, we do know that sleep is essential to both physical and mental health–especially for seniors. The problem is, seniors have trouble falling asleep and getting the really deep sleep necessary for good health. This may be caused by pain, having to frequently go to the bathroom, anxiety, or any number of reasons. Lack of sleep causes both attention and memory problems, which can then lead to depression. And, getting up at night also increases the risk of falling, a leading cause of injury among seniors. Suggestions to ensure a good night’s sleep include: having your parent go to sleep and wake up on a regular schedule; preventing them from napping too much during the day; regular exercise; avoiding food and drink with caffeine late in the day; having a warm beverage before bed (no alcohol or caffeine); and, creating the perfect sleep environment, with safety and comfort top of mind. Common sense dictates that we make sure a parent has the optimal conditions for sleep. I highly recommend that you consult with a physician or specialist to make sure that they do.

Sense of Purpose, Meaning & Connection
Love makes the world go round. This includes family, friends, neighbors and even the network of caregivers and health professionals that become so important in the last stages of your parents’ lives. The most important piece of course is family, with its special focus on children and grandchildren. If you’re not sure what I mean, just watch what happens when you put an infant or small child on the lap of an ailing grandparent or relative. The most serious aches and pains are quickly forgotten. At this stage of your parents’ lives, it’s important to remind them how much they have contributed, and what that means to you. Like a family tree, with its many branches and fruit, each parent’s life is connected and has real meaning.

Need an activity? Try Building a Scrapbook Together
One of the best activities for Better Brain Health is building a scrapbook. This touches on several areas, including mental stimulation, stress management, social interaction, and the sense of purpose, meaning and connection—along with the associated benefits of each of these. Here’s how it works: With the aid of a family member or caregiver, have your parents gather photos and mementos. Then comes the best part: with each photo or memento, encourage each parent to share memories and tell stories. It’s amazing what they will remember. It’s often noted that long-term memory can be crystal clear as short-memory deteriorates. Let each parent relive the best parts of their life, and connect again in their imagination. Finally, you can capture these memories, putting notes next to photos and mementos in the scrapbook. Your parents can now refer back to the scrapbook and enjoy the memories over and over, and it’s a great keepsake for the entire family. Don’t rush. Give them plenty of time to enjoy the memories—weeks or months if necessary. The activity is more important than finishing the scrapbook.

Final Note
Scrapbooks are just one activity that can help your parents maintain a healthy mind. There are many more. A simple search on Google will produce dozens of ideas, along with tips in all the key areas of Better Brain Health. The most important thing to remember is this: Sometimes it’s just the time, effort, care, and love that really matter. Your parents will appreciate it deeply, whether they fully express it or not. You will see the difference in their mental acuity and overall attitude. And, finally, you will always value the good feeling that comes from having spent this quality time with your parents and contributed to their quality of life.

Jack Merrick is the co-owner and co-executive director of Good Company Senior Care, an independent, in-home caregiver service with offices in Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties.