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Maintaining Mental Function

Q: I am worried about the effects aging will have on my abilities to think independently and maintain a clear head.  Are there any steps I can take as I age to keep dealing with a full deck?

Dr. Donnica:
Most Americans want to stay smart and independent as they age.  Unfortunately, there has been so much emphasis on Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia in the media that it's easy to think "everyone" gets that way.

Not true, according to a recent report from the Institute for the Study of Aging (ISOA) and the International Longevity Center (ILC--USA).  The bottom line for this study was that as far as brainpower goes, "use it or lose it" should be your mantra. 

This means that the more you keep your brain active, the more it will continue to function in good form. The report gave 7 recommendations:

  1. Continue lifelong learning.
  2. Exercise:  physical exercise promotes blood flow to the brain.
  3. Continue your social activities and activities of daily living.
  4. Reduce stress and actively practice stress reduction techniques (e.g. yoga, gardening, exercise, massage).
  5. Get enough sleep.
  6. Treat emotional disorders, such as depression.
  7. Maintain proper nutrition:  throw out the supplements like melatonin and DHEA and focus on eating a well-balanced diet.  Antioxidants, multivitamins, and estrogen replacement for women have also been shown to help. 

The following are risk factors for impaired mental function:

  • Genetic factors
  • Being menopausal
  • Various medical conditions, such as:
    • Depression
    • Alcoholism
    • Hypertension
    • Heart disease
    • Diabetes
    • High cholesterol
    • High homocysteine levels
    • Mini-strokes (transient ischemic attacks or TIA's)
    • Stroke
    • Head trauma
    • Environmental exposure to certain toxins (e.g. lead)

  • Lifestyle choices:
    • Smoking
    • Substance abuse (including alcohol and illicit or prescription drugs)

  • Psychological/Psychosocial Factors:
    • Low educational level achieved
    • Lack of physical activity
    • Lack of social interaction
    • Excessive response or exposure to stress

Click here for more information about depression or other mental health issues.

Source:  Journal of the American Medical Association, 5/16/01

Created: 5/25/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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