By PEGGY BUCHANAN and MADELINE KONG
Today's adults are living longer, healthier lives, due in part to better fitness and nutrition. With the number of Americans 65 and older expected to represent more than 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, exercise and diet are more important than ever.
But that's not the whole story. Let's not forget the mind-body connection. After decades of health experts touting the benefits of bran muffins, firm buns and bulging biceps, we are spotlighting the new star of the show: the brain.
The brain has long been recognized by some medical professionals to play a role in the development of many organic illnesses. The physical manifestations of an illness, unless caused by mechanical trauma, cannot be separated from our emotional lives, otherwise known as "mental well-being."
Descartes' words, cogito ergo sum, or "I think, therefore I am," illuminates an important proposition: Through thoughts processed in our brain, we are conscious of ourselves. This allows us to then perceive and experience our surroundings and contribute to our society.
Besides providing a sense of self, our brains constantly take in and process information and give our bodies instructions to proceed happily in our lives.
How can we create a routine that pursues and maintains mental well-being? First, just like a physical-fitness program, a brain-fitness program should be multidimensional -- involving all parts of the brain -- and challenging enough to prevent a brain-fitness "plateau."
Keeping the brain active and fit is imperative to the health of older adults as well as for people of any age. Not only does it increase mental acuity and stave off many forms of dementia, it also fosters executive function and the ability to make sure things get done.
You can nurture your mental well-being by modifying some of your regular routines. Try some of these simple lifestyle changes:
1. Break your routine: Routine limits brain stimulation. Introduce new foods or new ways of eating the same food. Try taking a different route to the grocery store or church.
2. Tend and befriend: Volunteering your time to help others has been documented to be beneficial to your health. The experience of bonding, nurturing and socializing releases hormones capable of suppressing anxiety and psychological stress responses.
3. Get good sleep: Good quality and quantity of sleep allows muscles and joints to rest and repair and provides the needed downtime for the brain to maintain good mental acuity.
4. Take your time: Slow down and smell the roses. Rushing around creates high anxiety. Taking your time and being more mindful supports the ability to focus and inhibit distractions, thereby maximizing cognitive ability.
5. Dance like there's no tomorrow: Older adults who get regular physical exercise are 60 percent less likely to get dementia. Exercise increases oxygen to the brain and releases a protein that strengthens cells and neurons. Dance involves all of the above along with the cerebral activity present in learning and memory.
6. Eat for your brain: Make sure you get your omega-3 fatty acids. These acids are crucial to the proper functioning of brain cells. You can find omega-3s in fatty fish such as salmon or sardines as well as in plant-based foods such as flaxseed and chia seeds. Sprinkle some flaxseed or chia seeds on your oatmeal for an extra boost in the morning.
7. Smile: Scientists suggest we can rewire our brains for a higher happiness set point by smiling, visualizing beautiful experiences and paying attention to the good things in life.
8. Laugh a lot: Some call it internal jogging -- the endorphins and dopamine released by the brain during laughter increase our sense of pleasure. Look for an opportunity for a good laugh. It turns out to be good medicine as a memory enhancer while adding to quality of life.
Finally, share your mental well-being journey with a friend. Not only will you be more encouraged to stick with and reach your brain-fitness goals, but you will also find that a partner can help you be more creative and have more fun along the way.
--Peggy and Madeline