Enhancing Mental Fitness
Keeping our minds alert is important throughout life. After we stop working and managing our families, we may not feel we are stimulating our brains in the quite same way. As we age and perhaps experience a decrease in our activity overall, it can be difficult to challenge our minds and exercise our brains as we should. The brain does change as we age, but it is possible to maintain, and even improve our cognitive and mental function in our later years.
A few years ago, Laureate Group was selected as a host site (the only one in the Midwest) for MindAlert, an excellent training program in cognitive fitness, provided by the American Society on Aging. Several members of our staff completed the curriculum and we use the resources and ideas from the program in our communities. We continue to share innovative program ideas and introduce practical and enjoyable programs to promote cognitive health in our residents. In addition we offer mind fitness sessions to local church and senior groups.
We all know that any activity is better than no activity when it comes to our bodies. Brain aerobics is recognized as good for the brain, but some activities are viewed as better than others when it comes to stimulating multiple areas of the brain. That said, overall good health is a vital part of mental fitness. In other words, doing crossword puzzles alone is not enough if one really wants to keep mentally fit.
The MindAlert program is based on five basic tenants of health that will have an impact cognitive function:
It is important to keep moving each and every day. Just 30 minutes a day can make a difference. Some research has shown that people who started walking several times a week scored significantly higher on a memory test after just six months. Even individuals with limited mobility can benefit from exercise – strength training, seated exercises, yoga and stretching and more.
We all know we should follow a well balanced diet, one low in fat, cholesterol and sugar, and high in fiber. It should stand to reason that if it is good for our hearts, it is good for our brains. Every five years the government updates Dietary Guidelines. The recent update not surprisingly suggests: eat more vegetables and avoid alcohol in excess.
As we age it is very easy to slowly become less socially active for any number of reasons. We drive less, stay at home more and may no longer volunteer or participate in a club or organization. Recent studies have found that social isolation may be an important risk factor for cognitive decline.
Stress is called a memory thief. Many people in middle age worry that very common memory slips indicate they are in mental decline. Often, they diminish the impact of stress on memory. It is not unusual to forget where you put your keys when you were talking on a cell phone with your boss while unlocking the front door, hoping one of your kids walked the dog and realize that you are already late for a meeting. There are many ways to relieve stress: yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, listening to music or playing the piano. The important point is to find what works best for you and practice it routinely.
Just as you should work all muscle groups each day, it is important to try to exercise as many parts of your brain as you can. Experts have identified six different cognitive skills to engage. This makes exercising the brain rather fun. A well-rounded fitness program for the brain can include a wide variety of activity.
Verbal-Linguistic – This is communicating through speaking, writing and even gesture. Learn a new word each day and use it in conversation or writing. Try your hand at poetry. Anyone who volunteers to read during church services is using this skill.
Mathematical/Logical – Even if you hated math in school, playing some number games, even doing simple addition and subtraction without a calculator is a good exercise.
Visual/Spatial – This is the realm of architects, artists and engineers but anyone can work on this skill. Creating pottery or even the ancient art of origami – paper folding can work this skill. Try visualizing a room you have been in and place all the elements in the room in their right place. Visualize a room like this as it is described in a novel you have been reading.
Musical/Rhythm – Listening to music and even singing has emotional benefits as well. Recalling songs in a game of “name that tune or advertising jingle” is one activity we organize often in our communities.
Body/Kinesthetic - Need a reason to dance? Yoga and Tai Chi are also good for the body and the mind as it is necessary to remember moves and technique.
Interpersonal/Intrapersonal – Interacting with others engages the brain in many ways, as it requires reading verbal and nonverbal cues. One of the benefits of living in a senior community is that there are people around at any hour of the day to spend time with.
In our communities we try to provide a wide variety of activity so that we can routinely engage all six skills areas. Some activities are informal, such as posting mind games or puzzles at every elevator so residents and their guests can pick one up and have some fun. Other activities are instigated by our residents, such as chess or groups that play Settlers of Catan, a challenging, board game, which is played internationally. We never run out