Submitted by Carol Tomlinson, RN BS
Community Health Educator
Maintaining Cognitive Flexibility
According to the National Council on Aging, one of the greatest fears for seniors is the loss of independence. This has been greatly enhanced by the reports of the levels of Alzheimer’s and other dementias that are among the top causes of reducing senior’s ability to enjoy life. While we cannot control how old we are or our genetic makeup, we can greatly enhance our chances for staying independent by increasing or at least maintaining our mental flexibility.
Cognitive (thought processes) flexibility is a sign of healthy brain function – an indication that many parts of the brain are working in concert. It is the ability to shift your thinking from one area to another smoothly. The quicker you can transition the greater your flexibility. Another aspect of this flexibility is the ability to break down a complex thought into smaller chunks in order to find its meaning.
Cognitive flexibility can also mean adapting quickly to new information or ideas even if the information challenges long-held attitudes and beliefs. Unfortunately, according to research it is common as we age to develop repetitive behaviors and thought processes that get our brain stuck in unhealthy patterns. Our crystallized knowledge remains intact but the ability to think fluidly declines.
How can we boost this important brain function? As in many other areas, your lifestyle choices make the most significant differences. Studies by the American Psychological Association have shown some of the following maintain or improve brain plasticity.
Move: Make time for exercise! Exercise makes our brains work better and improves our memory, thinking and learning. It also prompts the release of an element known as BDNF, which is essentially “Miracle Grow” for the brain. You don’t have to go to a gym or have equipment – regular walks will do just as well. You can try some of the many community exercise programs such as HealthLink’s gentle yoga, chair yoga or tai chi. You can also try line dancing or water exercises at local venues.
Nourish: Food high in saturated fats like cheese and meats should be reduced to once or twice a week. Research has shown that foods high in saturated fat can actually cause cognitive decline. Instead try healthy foods rich in monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados which may actually be protective.
Connect: Regularly getting together with family and friends can improve brain plasticity and preserve cognitive abilities, and even regular phone conversations can help.
Relax: Did you know laughing can provide the kind of ‘relaxation’ your brain needs to stay healthy? Research has shown that a good belly laugh increases oxygen intake, relaxes muscles, lowers blood pressure and releases natural pain killers. You can even relax and experience mindfulness meditation while participating in a craft class.
Discover: Staying curious, trying new things, or going new places positively impacts brain health and function. So try something new or do something old in a new way.
Cognitive flexibility often decreases the older we become. However, the good news is that making healthy lifestyle choices can greatly influence how well our brain performs and how we enjoy life!
For more information, call HealthLink Littauer at 518-736-1120. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, see our website at nlh.org, or visit our wellness center at 2 Colonial Court in downtown Johnstown, Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. We’re your community health & wellness service of Nathan Littauer Hospital and Nursing Home.