retirement glasses on wood table            We hear all the time that we need to plan for retirement – we need to have a solid financial plan so that we can enjoy our retirement years rather than spending them in poverty.  But how much do we hear about investing in our cognitive future so that we can spend our retirement years enjoying our loved ones and our memories rather than being fed and bathed by strangers and not recognizing our friends and family?  Personally, I have heard very little about the latter topic, which seems to me to be just as important. 

            Did you know that the damage from Alzheimer’s Disease can begin anywhere from 20-50 year before symptoms appear?  The beginning stages of the disease are very slow moving, but the last stages are much quicker.  So, the time to do something is before you even see signs of a problem.  Just like a financial savings account, the time to make deposits into your mental savings account is before you need it.  Here are some ways you can build your cognitive savings account:

1.      Nutrition:  Unfortunately the typical American diet is not great for our brains.  Full of chemicals, sugar and unhealthy fats these foods don’t do anything help prevent getting Alzheimer’s Disease.  One of the best things you can do to invest in your future self is to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods.  Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants which help protect your brain from brain cell deterioration.  When you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetable you get lots of nutrients that are often lost when foods are processed.  Studies show that people who eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables have a 40% slower decline in cognitive abilities than those who eat 4 servings or less.

2.     Exercise:  Keeping fit can help lower many of the risk factors associated with cognitive decline, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol.  Exercise also improves blood flow to the brain, and it can help keep blood vessels soft and pliable, reducing the risk of stroke.  Recommendations are that you get approximately 20-30 minutes of exercise/day, including both aerobic and resistance activities.

3.     Social:  Study after study shows that isolation is not a good thing for humans – feelings of isolation and loneliness actually increase your risk for dementia later in life.  Friends can help reduce stress, reduce depression, and support positive lifestyle changes.  Those of you who tend to be introverts don’t worry – I am not saying you must become social butterflies.  For some of us, it only takes 1 or 2 friends to fend off feelings of loneliness.  The idea is to know how much social interaction you need, and make sure you get that.  You can even incorporate social with other things – work out with a friend, have a dinner party, join a cooking club.  Look for ways to include connection in your life, and make sure it is real life, face to face connection rather than just social media.

4.     Sleep:  Sleep is more than just downtime; it is the time our brain uses to clean house.  Our brains need this time to get rid of toxic substances, thoughts and memories accumulated during the day.  How much sleep do we need?  Apparently, there is no definitive answer.  It was thought that 7-9 hours is optimal, but studies seem to say that individual needs vary.  Rather than going by the number of hours, go by how you feel.  Do you feel energized throughout the day or do you get sluggish and need large amounts of caffeine to get you through the day?  If you have enough energy, you are probably getting enough sleep.  If you feel like you are dragging your feet, you might need a little more sleep.  Being sleep deprived is not a badge of honor; it is making withdrawals from our cognitive savings account.

Losing our memories, losing our independence, these don’t have to be the inevitable results of growing older.  We have some choice.  There may be factors beyond our control, but there are a lot of areas that we can influence.  Don’t try to overhaul your entire life.  Pick one or two things to start with.  Practice them until they become habit.  When those one or two things become easier, then pick something else to add in.  Before you know it, you will be well on your way to having a great mental savings account!


Gwen Bartran, MA, LPC, Certified Brain Health Coach

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