We’ve learned about forming healthy habits for physical wellness, now let’s talk about how to keep your brain sharp as you age. 

A lot of people think genetics are the main contributing factor in cognitive decline, but lifestyle is far more important. Dementia and Alzheimer’s expert Melissa Batchelor tells us about how diet, movement, water, and sleep can affect brain function.

Melissa Batchelor is the director of George Washington University’s Center for Aging, Health and Humanities. As a board-certified nurse with a PhD in geriatrics, she’s passionate about preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. 

In order to strengthen those neurons, Melissa highlights the role of relationships and learning to help us stay mentally fit. Keep your mind as sharp as a tack by tuning in to this informative episode!

The Power is in Our Hands

Dr. Melissa Batchelor is a registered nurse and expert in aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Melissa is the director for the Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University and a Congressional advisor on aging issues.

Melissa is a wealth of knowledge. She shares how our lifestyle choices affect dementia and Alzheimer’s risk in people over 55. Melissa emphasizes that while genetics play a part, lifestyle choices have a more significant impact on cognitive health. She explains that Alzheimer’s is just one form of dementia, accounting for 60-70% of cases. Melissa dives into various types of dementia, like frontal lobe and vascular-related, totaling around 60-70 types in all.

From a nursing and care perspective, Melissa highlights that despite the different types, they’re approached similarly. The silver lining? Lifestyle choices heavily influence cognitive health, giving people control over their brain health. It’s a hopeful message, implying that we have the power to make a difference in our cognitive well-being through the choices we make.

Lifestyle Choices

So, what lifestyle changes someone over 55 can make starting today to combat cognitive decline? Is it possible to reverse any damage?

Melissa reassures that it’s never too late to make positive changes. She challenges the idea that age should limit us, emphasizing the importance of basic wellness practices like diet, sleep, hydration, and movement. Melissa emphasizes that exercise doesn’t mean intense workouts; simple activities like walking and strength exercises are beneficial, aiding in preventing falls as people age.

The core lifestyle elements she highlights include:

  • Exercise: Aim for 10,000 steps daily and include some strength training.
  • Sleep: Each night, target seven to eight hours of sleep.
  • Hydration: Start the day with a glass of water to support brain function.
  • Diet: Focus on clean eating. The Mediterranean diet is a recommended approach for overall health and brain protection.

Melissa stresses that these lifestyle choices have a substantial impact not only on protecting against Alzheimer’s but also on overall well-being. It’s a practical guide for anyone looking to proactively improve their cognitive health, irrespective of age.

Maintaining a Balanced and Healthy Diet

If you’re unfamiliar with the Mediterranean diet, it focuses on seafood, lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables while minimizing red meat. Melissa simplifies it further by suggesting foods found around the grocery store’s perimeter or those in their natural packaging, like bananas or oranges. These are non-processed foods and are considered ideal for our bodies. Conversely, she warns against processed foods often found in boxes with unrecognizable ingredients, advising people to steer clear of these.

What about ketones? Should we try to follow a keto diet? Melissa distinguishes between using ketones through coconut oil and the strict keto diet for weight loss. While some aspects might have benefits, Melissa advises caution, suggesting balance and moderation rather than extreme dietary changes. She stresses the importance of consulting healthcare providers before making drastic diet shifts.

Melissa emphasizes balance and moderation in dietary choices, suggesting that while indulging occasionally is okay, it’s essential to maintain a focus on portion control and favoring whole foods. It’s also important to watch sugar intake, monitor salt consumption, and be mindful of alcohol portions. Focusing on portion sizes and opting for natural, unprocessed foods leads to better health.

Gradual Changes to a Healthier Lifestyle

A common theme among people in their empty-nest phase: the shift in eating habits after years of catering to active, calorie-burning kids. Christina and Melissa discuss how parents often focus on high-carb diets for their athletic children, but once the kids leave, there’s a shift, and it’s normal to want to improve personal health at that point.

Christina shares her own experience of gaining weight during her kids’ teenage years but then decided to take small steps toward a healthier lifestyle. She started with daily walks and gradually incorporated weight training, finding it beneficial not just physically but also for her mental well-being.

Starting with small changes can yield major improvements to your health. Melissa adds that occasional treats are alright; it’s about finding a balance and not depriving oneself entirely, which might lead to overindulgence later. 

Ways to Contribute to a Healthy Brain

Various lifestyle aspects can contribute to brain health as people age. Melissa emphasizes the importance of social connections, learning, and creativity for a healthy brain.

Social connections are so important. Maintaining friendships and avoiding toxic relationships is critical to overall wellness. Melissa mentions that isolation negatively affects the brain and emotional well-being, drawing from experiences with patients who suffer from lack of interaction. It is important for us all to stay connected and engaged in society irrespective of age.

In addition to healthy relationships, Melissa encourages continuous learning, even if it’s just picking up one new skill each month, as it challenges and stimulates the brain.

There are abundant resources available to learn new skills. From YouTube to online learning platforms, there is no shortage of courses and tools available at our fingertips. Additionally, Melissa reminds us that activities like joining book clubs or engaging in creative pursuits are also worthwhile pursuits in improving brain health. Creativity doesn’t necessarily mean being an artist but encompasses various activities, including conversation and problem-solving.

Not sure where to start? Christina and Melissa discuss the impact of AI and how it can spark creativity. Christina shares her fascination with AI, how it’s influenced her creativity, and how it’s being utilized in various fields, including academics. Melissa adds that critical thinking and human input in conjunction with AI’s capabilities can be a powerful agent.

Improving Cognitive Health Through Games

Games such as Boggle, word puzzles, and other brain activities are useful in maintaining cognitive health.

Melissa shares her experience with Boggle, highlighting its benefits in enhancing verbal fluency, a crucial aspect affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She explains that such word-finding games are not just enjoyable but also help in improving verbal fluency and memory retention. You don’t necessarily need games that require subscriptions; simple games or puzzles are effective.

Many wonder how frequently to incorporate these types of brain activities into their daily lives. Melissa notes that it’s not about a specific duration (such as 30 minutes daily) but more about actively engaging the brain. She points out the importance of avoiding passive consumption of information, highlighting the value of problem-solving and creativity.

Napping and Sleep Hygiene

If you’ve ever struggled with memory or sleep issues as you’ve aged, you’re not alone. Christina shares her worries about forgetfulness and brain fog, wondering if these are signs of aging or something more serious. Melissa reassures her that occasional memory lapses, like forgetting why you entered a room, are typical with age. However, if memory issues persist without recall or become a consistent pattern, that might signal a problem.

Sleep struggles are common among women over 50, as menopause-related issues such as night sweats impact sleep quality. Melissa suggests taking naps to compensate for a lack of sleep. “Nap equipment” like special blankets are fun ways to invite simple pleasures and relaxation techniques into your routine to counter life’s stressors. 

Although everyone is busy, it is important to find downtime in a busy schedule to promote well-being.

In addition to napping, Melissa emphasizes the significance of sleep hygiene, reminding listeners that the bedroom should be used for sleep and sex only. It’s also important to maintain a consistent bedtime and manage fluid intake before bed.

Morning Walks and Supplements

You’ve heard it here before, but there are many benefits of morning walks. For one, exposure to natural light is vital for setting the body’s circadian rhythm. Secondly, this routine fosters a positive start to the day, promoting well-being.

Another source of confusion and overwhelm for some is supplements. Melissa shares her minimalist approach to supplements, advocating for basic multivitamins and a cautious attitude toward additional supplements. She stresses the importance of consulting healthcare providers before starting supplements to avoid any potential interactions with prescribed medications.

Amplifying the Conversation About Aging

Melissa’s significant accomplishment of her podcast reaching the top 10% globally is a source of pride. She reflects on her journey and plans to continue to use her voice and expertise in the podcasting realm. Her aim is to turn it into a TV show that blends elements of various programs, focusing on positively reshaping the narrative around aging and providing solutions and resources for successful aging for both individuals and caregivers. Christina and Melissa advocate for continued conversations about aging in society and the changing demographics.

Watch Melissa’s full episode here:

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