North Americans are living longer lives, but even with healthier lifestyles, our bodies undergo normal tear and wear, and muscles, bones and even brain cells deteriorate. Small amounts of memory loss are normal as we age, especially when everyday stress is elevated. Memory loss, dementia, confusion, depression and Alzheimer's disease are often thought of as normal signs of aging. But while there may be an increased proclivity toward these conditions as we get older, there are ways to stave them off.
Learn the difference between normal and minor memory loss and a serious cognitive disability. Depression caused by money worries, grief over the loss of loved ones, physical disabilities or sudden changes in home life may cause confusion and impaired reasoning, but continued depression should be brought to a doctor's attention. Sudden personality changes, extreme withdrawal from social contact, excessive lethargy or apathy, an inability to follow conversations or to articulate words, and the failure to retrace steps such as returning home from the store are serious symptoms, and a doctor should be consulted without delay. Trauma to the head, a drooping of the mouth and slurred speech may indicate a brain injury, a transient ischemic attack or a stroke and require immediate medical intervention.
Doctors sometimes prescribe medications to help with cognitive memory loss or depression, but underlying medical conditions may be the cause and should be treated first. Individuals should make sure they are eating healthful foods, doing physical exercise for at least 30 minutes every day and getting sufficient sleep (seven to nine hours are recommended) every night. Drug use, both illicit and prescription, as well as heavy alcohol use and smoking, can alter the brain. Prescription drugs should be taken only when and as prescribed. If a patient has diabetes, blood glucose levels need to be carefully monitored and controlled. Studies have found that controlled sugar levels are associated with higher cognitive abilities than uncontrolled.
A healthy diet that includes adequate proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, B-12 and high-potency multivitamins will help to maintain vascular health and reduce the risk of coronary disease, stroke and hypertension -- all conditions that could lead to a serious cognitive deficit, dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Proper nutrition goes a long way toward effective body and brain maintenance.
Exercise, both physical and mental, will help to keep body and mind sound. Physical exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, increases blood flow and oxygen to the body and brain. Always speak to your doctor before beginning an exercise regimen. In addition to increasing blood and oxygen, exercise releases endorphins, which are the body's natural therapy for depression, pain and stress. Even a 30-minute daily walk will help to alleviate the tension that exacerbates memory loss and confusion. Physical exercise can be high-intensity for those who are physically able, or as mild as arm curls with one-pound weights while sitting. Yoga and meditation are also great stress reducers and will help to free the mind and encourage clear thoughts.
Exercising the brain is a way of staving off normal memory loss and improving reasoning and decision-making skills. Figurative situps for the brain include memory games such as Pictionary, the memorization of short poems, or simply writing a grocery list and then putting it aside to rewrite without looking at the original.
Reading books and writing stories also help to keep the brain active. Go back to school and enroll in classes just for the fun of learning something new and interesting. Stay in touch with friends and family -- in person is best, but phone calls and emails will help, as well. When you are alone, talk your way through mundane tasks as if you are teaching someone else to do what you are doing -- you will utilize more of your brain by talking through these activities.
It also is important to schedule some fun into your otherwise hectic week. Go see a movie, go bowling, or take up golf. Volunteering for a civic organization, working at a part-time job or teaching a skill you possess to others will keep your brain active and receptive to more learning opportunities.
Whatever you do, engage and maintain your brain every day.