Financial issues are not the key retirement concerns for many people. Many people in or approaching retirement are more concerned about their health than their finances. A recent poll found that declining cognitive function is among the top concerns people have about their retirement years.
While money fears grab the headlines, many people are more worried about losing their independence or becoming a burden on others. I’m not a medical professional, but my research on retirement and retirement finances often causes me to study the research on the physical and mental changes people normally experience during the retirement years. It turns out, you really can take steps to help your brain remain fit and relatively young, reducing the risk of developing significant cognitive problems such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s no solid cure or even a preventive for Alzheimer’s and dementia, though research is well-funded and continuing. Yet, there are steps that are shown to reduce the risk of developing the cognitive diseases, and the earlier you start taking these steps, the more likely you are to be successful.
Physical exercise. Actions that help your body also help your brain. In fact, research shows that the risk factors for heart disease also are risk factors for cognitive disease. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are risk factors for Alzheimer’s, in addition to heart disease and strokes. The good news is that studies show that only six months of moderate exercise can alter brain activity and improve cognitive functioning.
Eating well. This is another area where what’s good for your heart also is good for your brain. Diets that are plant-based and high in fish consumption reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. The Mediterranean diet is widely recommended as a way to improve both physical and mental health. Another good step is to increase consumptions of food with antioxidants, such as berries, raisins, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables.
It is best to receive your nutrition through food, unless you already have good eating habits and yet have a measured deficiency in one or more nutrients. Dietary supplements haven’t been shown to increase brain fitness.
Cognitive exercise. This is an area in which it is important to know the latest research. Many people believe that simply staying mentally active improves cognitive activity and reduces their risk. They spend time doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku and similar activities.
Researchers now believe that brain function and fitness are improved best through new activities and knowledge. To maximize brain fitness, varying your routines and learning new things is better than simply doing things to keep your brain busy. Go to classes, develop new hobbies, put yourself in new situations and increase the complexity of the activities you do. You don’t need to make drastic changes. If you do crossword puzzles, you can switch to Sudoku for a while and then later to something else. Any change or variation is better than no change.
Lifestyle. Anything that keeps you active and engaged and reduces stress should improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive disease. Being socially engaged is important. Studies show brain health is improved by simple changes such as volunteering a few hours each week or taking dance classes. Anything that includes interaction with others is helpful, and if you learn something new in the process, that’s even better.
Stress tends to damage both brain function and heart function. So, actions to reduce stress improve both brain and heart health. Physical activity is one way to reduce stress, so it has the dual benefit of improving brain function and reducing stress. Also consider meditation, wellness classes and other stress-reduction techniques.
There are free tests online that measure your cognitive functions. Each takes 15 to 20 minutes and helps determine if your memory problems are the result of normal aging or something else. One test is at www.cogniciti.com. Another is at cft. foodforthebrain.org.
Maintaining your brain fitness and keeping your brain young means, among other things, that you’ll make better financial decisions and maintain your financial independence.