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Brain fitness: What's the best way to improve thinking?
We all want to maintain our brainpower for as long as possible. If you are caring for a family member who already has memory problems, you may feel especially at risk.
The good news is that, regardless of age, simple changes in lifestyle can help keep a brain strong and resilient. The key ingredient is exercise for the mind and body.
Although adults can’t make new brain cells, we can make new neurons. Neurons are the connections between brain cells. And mental exercise sparks the creation of new neural connections. With more connections, the brain has back-up options, or “cognitive reserve.” And cognitive reserve helps a brain do better for longer.
Is a “brain game” the best exercise to help preserve clear thinking? Not necessarily. Brain games improve a person’s ability to do specific tasks, but they have not been proven to enhance a person’s ability to navigate the complexity of everyday life.
Instead, engage in mental activities that stimulate the brain to think in new ways. Consider these options:
- Volunteering, playing games, and doing crafts
- Attending lectures, theater, or musical events
- Reading, writing, and searching the Internet
What you want to avoid is repetition, and hours in front of the TV. The goal is novelty and challenge!
Physical exercise is also important. Research shows that people who are physically active stay “with it” longer. Aerobic activities such as walking, biking, and swimming increase blood flow, which supports the development of new neural connections. As with mental exercise, the upshot is lower risk for mental decline.
Beware of products that promise to delay or prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Research has not yet discovered any “magic pill” or strategy. Instead, scientists encourage a focus on overall health, keeping blood pressure and blood sugar in check, and getting plenty of physical and mental stimulation.Return to top
Getting support from your spiritual beliefs
Do you want to feel more emotionally stable and “up” as you care for your family member?
Studies show that religion and spirituality help family caregivers maintain a sense of well-being. In fact, individuals who draw upon their religious or spiritual beliefs report feeling less burdened and depressed. Those who stay involved with their church or spiritual community also report more optimism and less stress related to caregiving.
But in today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and fall out of touch: out of touch with yourself or out of step with your spiritual practices.
Take a moment for self-reflection. These questions may help you recall simple ways to nurture yourself spiritually.
- How do you describe your beliefs about life? What gives your life meaning? When you’re struggling with your loved one’s needs, recalling those deeper beliefs can help you regain emotional balance.
- What can you do to connect to your spirituality? One way might be spending time in nature. Daily prayer or meditation. Saying grace at meals. Or regularly visiting a place of special significance.
- What activities give to you spiritually? Does singing with others bring you alive? Or would you prefer a weekly reading and discussion group? Perhaps an annual retreat or periodic talks with a member of the clergy?
- Do you feel drawn to a faith community? Give yourself the flexibility to go when you can. You will have more to give your loved one if you take the time to fill your spiritual well.
- How can your faith community help you find meaning in your caregiving? Are there other family caregivers in your congregation? You might meet together to support each other spiritually.
If your loved one becomes seriously ill while traveling
Taking Mom on vacation this summer? You may rest more easily knowing there are options for getting home if she gets sick or injured on the trip.
If your family member is critically ill, hire an air ambulance. An air ambulance is a chartered plane or other aircraft outfitted with life-support equipment. It is also staffed by a full medical team. It’s the answer if Mom needs treatment immediately at another location or if her health is very fragile.
If your loved one is stable but needs constant medical monitoring, consider hiring a medical escort. Medical escorts are professionals such as flight nurses, respiratory therapists, and paramedics. They are trained to handle health problems in any setting.
How quickly do you need to get home?
- By air. Hiring a flight nurse as an escort on a commercial flight is the quickest option, as long as your loved one is able to sit up for take-off and landing. Flight nurses have additional knowledge of the body’s response to altitude.
- By rail. If flying is out of the question, you may want to have an escort travel with your loved one on an Amtrak sleeper car.
- By ground transportation. Long-distance, nonemergency ambulance transport offers flexibility and simplicity. It can take Mom door to door. Or, if the situation is not urgent, rent an RV to transport your loved one in bed.
To find a medical escort, locate the nearest accredited air ambulance company.
Medicare may cover the cost of medically necessary travel. To learn the rules, download the Medicare Coverage of Ambulance Services booklet. Or contact Medicare (800-633-4227). If your family member has other insurance, contact the insurer. No insurance? Contact Air Care Alliance. These volunteer pilots provide air transport for people who have no insurance and can’t afford a charter flight.Return to top