Making sure you get a good night’s rest is important at all stages of life, but especially so as we age. In a study published in the journal Nature Aging, Professor Sahakian found that seven hours of sleep a night is optimal for cognition, mental health and well-being in middle-aged and older adults. Too little or too much sleep was associated with smaller volumes in different brain areas.
The reason sleep is so crucial to brain health is because the body uses this time to eliminate toxins and waste products that have accumulated during the day, as well as to consolidate memories. However, people over the age of 60 are known to be more prone to insomnia for several reasons. As we age, the body secretes less melatonin, the sleep hormone that coordinates our circadian rhythms.
“If you have trouble sleeping, make sure you exercise regularly during the day,” says Professor Sahakian. “You also have to make sure that your pillows and mattress are comfortable, that you have good ventilation in the bedroom and that the temperature is right for you. Watch a relaxing movie or relax with nice music or read a good book and don’t work until you go to bed. Some people find it easier to fall asleep if they’re thinking about a relaxing vacation, like lying on the beach and listening to the waves of the ocean.”
Try this: Aim for seven hours of sleep a night.
7. Reduce stress
Whether it’s work or family, some level of stress in our lives is inevitable, but repeated chronic stress is a major trigger of persistent inflammation in the body. Over time, this can weaken the blood-brain barrier, allowing inflammatory proteins to enter the brain and affect systems related to mental agility.
Sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol have also been shown to have an adverse effect on brain health, causing shrinkage in vital regions such as the hippocampus.
“You can’t function very well if you’re stressed,” says Professor Sahakian. “It can be very important in terms of your ability to remember things and your attention span.”
Chronic stress at any stage of life is never good, but we are especially vulnerable to it later, as our brains are less resilient. It can also interact with other critical functions, as people tend to struggle to sleep when they are stressed.
Professor Sahakian recommends trying to deal with the source of the stress or using coping mechanisms, such as meditation. Regular exercise and socializing can also help mitigate the effects of stress, which is much more pronounced when a person is socially isolated and lacks a support network.
Try this: Maintain a regular exercise regimen or seek mindfulness as a way to cope with stress. Talking about sources of stress with friends or family can help.
8. Find a sense of purpose
Perhaps the simplest advice of all is to make sure you still have a sense of purpose in life, long before retirement. Earlier this year, a survey by University College London found that older people who still felt there was meaning in life had a 19 percent reduced risk of developing cognitive decline.
This can range from volunteering for a charity, to some form of part-time work or simply having a range of hobbies that you are passionate about.
“Staying intellectually engaged in some way is associated with more successful aging,” says Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University in New York. “There’s no one activity that’s a magic bullet, it’s what interests you, whether it’s reading or playing Scrabble.”
The reason why having a purpose is important to the brain is related to something neuroscientists call cognitive reserve. This is a kind of spare mental capacity that allows the brain to take more damage before actually feeling the effects. Your cognitive reserve is much stronger if you do activities that continue to motivate and stimulate you.
Try this: Once retired, find things that feed you and give you an idea of goals to achieve and motivation from one month to the next.
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