Each year I and others on the Spring Lake Village wellness staff attend the International Council on Active Aging Conference to learn more about “cutting edge” programs that promote living and aging well. We connect with industry leaders and our peers to view the latest advances in wellness technology and equipment.
At Spring Lake Village, we take pride in understanding and using the latest technologies and thinking to best serve our residents.
My most informative course this year was “Brain Power.” The lectures were of particular interest to me because, when I meet with residents for their annual fitness and balance assessment, a common report is fear of cognitive decline. The Brain Power course provided helpful tools for slowing and even stopping the downward trajectory of cognitive changes during aging.
Cognition refers to mental functions that allow us to acquire knowledge and understanding through sensory input, experience, and thought. Things that can impact cognition include exercise, sleep, stress, nutrition and environment. There are also normal age-related changes to cognition. Our brain function can be negatively influenced by disease or co-morbidities but, conversely, can be optimized by lifestyle modifications (such as exercise and diet). Normal cognitive aging includes some neuronal decline, some neurodegeneration, which translates into general slowing of daily activities, losing things from time to time, occasional word-finding issues, and possibly missing paying a monthly bill.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change in response to experiences. We are extremely “plastic” as children. Researchers have only recently discovered that the brain can continue to change into later adulthood, but the effort required to elicit change is often greater.
By age 80, a healthy brain is 5% lighter than a brain in middle adulthood. These decreases in volume and weight are often due to physical changes in the brain and decreased blood flow. Therapeutic approaches may potentially reduce the risk of pathological brain volume decreases. These include: Mediterranean diet, supplementation, exercise, treatment of cardiovascular conditions and improving cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is like a cognitive gas tank. It tells us how long we can expect good cognitive functioning and what the course of cognitive aging is likely to be. A higher cognitive reserve yields a longer delay to dementia, more mild cognitive impairment, and may even slow the normal course of cognitive decline.
Stimulating activities and novel experiences are a pinnacle of healthy brains. As research has begun to emphasize, the combination of exercise or physical activities that possess elements of social contact, novelty, stimulation, cognitive demand, and positive mood states have significantly greater effects on cognition than any of these components alone.
A particularly successful technique involves performing two tasks simultaneously, one primary and the other secondary, and include a physical and a cognitive component to the activity.
The physical component includes tasks such as stepping, squatting, balancing, gait, strength training, and postural control. The cognitive component includes visual tasks, mathematics, working memory tasks, verbal fluency tasks, or rhythmic tasks. Research indicates that for adults 60 and older, a dose of cognitive-motor training of at least 60 minutes per week for a total of 12 hours (or 720 minutes) seems to be necessary to positively improve the cognitive domains of memory, executive functioning, processing speed, and attention.
At Spring Lake Village, we encourage all residents, to the best of their abilities, to be as active as possible. The phrase “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” is relevant to our brains. When connections are not used, the brain will allow them to degenerate. Sedentary behavior can be a main culprit. Research shows that participation in intellectually stimulating activities and physical activity, like those offered at Spring Lake Village, are two of the most effective interventions in promoting healthy cognitive aging. Our goal is for our residents to continue enjoying what they love and to discover new opportunities for fun and growth. There is no better way to do that than by maintaining brain health!
— Diane Waltz is the wellness director at Spring Lake Village. She holds a master’s degree in physical therapy form Stanford University.