Everyone worries about their memory and the state of their cognitive health from time to time, but what can you do to be proactive about it?
According to the Alzheimer's Association's 2016 Facts & Figures, 1 in 9 people age 65 and older has Alzheimer's disease and an estimated 5.4 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer's in 2016. More women than men have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, as almost two-thirds of Americans with these disorders are women.
One of the earliest warning signs of Alzheimer's is the experience of worsening memory loss or more frequent confusion. However, occasionally forgetting your keys or the name of someone you recently met does not apply. Cognitive decline refers to more serious issues such as forgetting things you would normally know or how to do things you've always done. Whether you're someone who's worried about their risk of dementia or the caregiver of someone with Alzheimer's, there are many things you can do to help improve memory, cognitive ability, lived experience, and overall personal well-being.
The 2011 World Alzheimer’s Report suggested that routinely providing personalized cognitive stimulation to those with mild to moderate stages of dementia can produce “short-term improvements and/or reduce decline in cognitive function.” Activities that can stimulate these responses target both the mental and social functions in the brain. These activities should be tailored to their interests and abilities, and they can be done in a group setting like a home care facility or carried out individually by a family or professional caregiver.
If you’ve cared for people with Alzheimer’s before, you know it can be hard to get through to them sometimes. People with Alzheimer’s may feel lost, confused, frustrated, or even non-responsive. However, the brain has an incredible talent for reshaping itself when it comes to learning and memory.
Although there is no cure for dementia, we know a lot about what affects brain function and brain aging. Just like the rest of our body, our brains age and respond to things like stress, poor diet, toxins, nutritional and hormonal deficiencies, inflammation, and lack of exercise or sleep. If you stimulate your brain in ways that strengthen those weaknesses, you will see real improvements in the memory, cognitive ability, and overall wellness of people with dementia.
Five Exercises and Activities That Improve Memory and Cognitive Function:
These five exercises for improving memory and cognitive function are perfect for seniors and can be easily achieved with the help of a caregiver.
Recent research shows that dance greatly improves memory skill in people with Alzheimer's and dementia. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine published a 21 year study of senior citizens 75 and older and the impact of various physical and cognitive activities on their mind. Surprisingly, "the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia” was frequent dancing.
Dancing has a social aspect, involves coordination, triggers positive emotions, and the exercise releases chemicals that stimulate the brain. Dancing could also be bringing back positive memories and be associated to music therapy, which is our next brain-booster on this list.
2. Playing Music or Singing
Music has been a recent area of interest among caregivers for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although the affected individual may otherwise have impaired memory and cognitive ability, their ability to play, remember, learn, or benefit from a song can still be preserved.
How many times have you sung the words to a song you haven’t heard in years? Or remembered something you otherwise wouldn’t have because you heard a particular song? Studies have shown music and memory have an incredibly strong link. People with Alzheimer’s experience this to an even greater extent. Hearing an old song activates large parts of the brain and can restore memories in the blink of an eye.
Music therapy improves memory and thinking, but it also improves behavior in people with Alzheimer’s. According to recent research from the University of British Columbia, it can reduce irritability and positively affect eating and sleeping habits.
In the 2014 documentary, “Alive Inside,” social worker Dan Cohen shows patients who were suffering from mild to severe Alzheimer’s and dementia transform and come alive after hearing a personalized playlist of music that they enjoyed listening to earlier in life. Patients who were unable to talk could suddenly answer questions about their life and the world, sing, or even get up and dance!
Gardening can improve the lives for people with dementia, as well as their caregivers. Aside from the beauty and peace associated with spending time outdoors, gardening has several mental and physical benefits for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Gardening creates a sense of purpose and is a very rewarding activity because it allows people to experience success, build confidence, and feel connected with the world around them. It’s very satisfying for people with dementia to nurture plants and create a sense of community with others who like to garden. For people with Alzheimer’s who are quite restless or agitated, gardening can bring peace and concentration, while relieving tension, frustration, and aggression. It is great exercise for the mind and body and boosts energy levels.
Caregivers should allow people with dementia to plan and design the garden, as many patients have previous knowledge and experience and would derive great pleasure from picking their favorite flowers and plants.
4. Puzzles, Games, and Socializing
We all know word games and puzzles like Sudoku are good for our brains, but did you know that socializing is an important aspect of our cognitive health? In a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers reported that people who maintained large social networks “reduced their risk of dementia and delayed or prevented cognitive impairment.”
Social networks are also associated with promoting healthy behaviors such as gardening, walking, and gaming. Studies have found that the mental exercises involved with games and puzzles challenge the brain and are important for maintaining cognitive function.
Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the benefits of meditation, especially for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Often there is a high level of perceived stress in those with Alzheimer’s, and meditation can help patients feel calmer. In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, researchers found that meditation improves mood, memory, sleep, mental health, general cognition, and positively affects other factors that contribute to the onset of dementia.
Meditation is also good for caregivers. In a study from UCLA, researchers found that meditation lowered stress levels in both professional and family caregivers. Meditation is an activity that caregivers can do together with the people in their care or an activity that can be performed separately.
Take a Flexible, Supportive Approach
If you work to improve your memory and cognitive function, you can prevent the early onset of dementia or improve the quality of life for your loved ones with Alzheimer’s. Stimulating the brain can help slow the decline of dementia, bring back memories, and restore certain functional abilities.
Just remember that is important to take a flexible and supportive approach with those affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. Take breaks, communicate, and, ask for input on what they would like or what could be done to improve their experience. Feeling important, empowered, and loved will go a long way to improving the lived experience of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.