How to Protect Your Brain Health Now

The pandemic can be hard on your memory, too. Here, from a new report, are tips for building resiliency

by Hallie Levine, AARP, March 8, 2021

“While a COVID-19 infection itself can directly harm your brain, months of isolation can take a toll as well,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent collaborative of scientists, doctors, and policy experts convened by AARP to provide trusted information on brain health. That’s why the council has released a report on how the brain health of older adults has been affected by the pandemic and what research is needed to address the problem. Along with the latest scientific findings, the report includes tips for older adults to adopt.

“People know that COVID-19 is a disease that affects the lungs, but they are not as aware that it can affect the brain as well. Even though there is much still to be learned about how COVID-19 affects our thinking, the GCBH wanted everyone to know this is a well-recognized problem, and emphasize that there are ways to address the health of their brain during the pandemic. The council also wanted to address some of the negative effects of the isolation that many people are experiencing,” explains council chair Marilyn Albert, professor of neurology and director of the division on cognitive neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Get vaccinated

Tip No. 1 is not surprising: Consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, and be sure to complete all required doses and keep following CDC guidelines. Doing so can protect your brain from the virus’s potential neurological harm, and may well save your life — especially if you’re over 65.

Here, from the council and its brain-health experts, are other ways you can keep your brain resilient during the pandemic.

Keep — or get — active

It’s easy to be a couch potato these days. So many of us are spending more time at home and are not yet comfortable returning to a gym or fitness studio. But as the Global Council report stresses, physical activity is vital to maintain cognition in adults, particularly older ones. Not only have studies linked low physical activity with higher dementia risk, but regularly exercising helps boost your immune system, which may provide additional protection against COVID-19, notes Gary Small, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center. View a daily walk or other fitness activity as essential to your brain health, and also try to limit how much you sit: Adults between the ages of 45 to 75 who sit for three to seven hours each day have a substantial thinning of their temporal lobe, which is where the brain forms new memories, according to Small’s own 2018 study. “This is one of the types of changes that can precede dementia,” he says.

Eat healthfully

An AARP survey released in summer 2020 found that many older adults had cut back on trips to the grocery store due to fears of contracting COVID-19. As a result, it may be more of a challenge for them to fill up on brain-healthy fares such as fatty fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. “Older adults may be relying on processed foods high in fat and refined sugar that cause weight gain,” Small notes. “It’s not only bad for your heart — we know that obesity in middle age increases your risk of developing late-life dementia.” However, you shop, try to consistently include the best foods for brain health, which include berries, leafy green veggies, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, fish, and seafood, along with beans, low-fat dairy, poultry, and grains.

Stay socially connected

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