With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the country, many Americans are looking forward to resuming their lives and returning to normal. This June, during Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, the Alzheimer’s Association is encouraging all Americans to make brain health an important part of their return to normal.
“The past year has been extremely challenging for most Americans,” said Beth Kallmyer, vice president, care and support, Alzheimer’s Association. “Chronic stress, like that experienced during the pandemic, can impact memory, mood and anxiety. As Americans begin to return to normal, we encourage them to make brain health a priority.”
The Alzheimer’s Association offers these five suggestions to promote brain health and to help Americans restore their mental well-being:
1. Recommit to Brain-Healthy Basics
Evidence suggests that healthy behaviors took a back seat for many Americans during the pandemic. Gym memberships were put on hiatus, social engagement became more challenging and many Americans swapped out healthful eating for their favorite comfort foods, take-out meals and frequent snacking while working remotely. One study published recently found participants gained nearly 1.5 pounds per month over the past year, on average.
The Alzheimer’s Association — through its U.S. POINTER Study — is examining the role lifestyle interventions, including diet, may play in protecting cognitive function. Right now, many experts agree that people can reduce the risk of cognitive decline by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, preferably in combination, including:
- Exercise regularly — Regular cardiovascular exercise helps increase blood flow to the body and brain, and there is strong evidence that regular physical activity is linked to better memory and thinking.
- Maintain a heart-healthy diet — Stick to a meal schedule full of fruits and vegetables to ensure a well-balanced diet. Some evidence suggests a healthful diet is linked to cognitive performance. The Mediterranean and DASH diets are linked to better cognitive functioning, and help reduce risk of heart disease as well.
- Get proper sleep — Maintaining a regular, uninterrupted sleep pattern benefits physical and psychological health, and helps clear waste from the brain. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night and try to keep a routine bedtime.
- Stay socially and mentally active — Meaningful social engagement may support cognitive health, so stay connected with friends and family. Engage your mind by doing activities that stump you, like completing a jigsaw puzzle or playing strategy games. Or challenge yourself further by learning a new language or musical instrument.
2. Return to Normal at Your Own Pace
Many Americans are eager for a return to normal life following the pandemic, but others are anxious. In fact, one recent survey found that nearly half of adults (49%) report feeling uncomfortable about returning to in-person interactions when the pandemic ends. For those feeling anxious, Kallmyer suggests taking small steps. It may also be important to set boundaries and communicate your preferences to others in your social circles.
“People need to be patient with themselves and with each other,” Kallmyer advises. “After a year like this one, the last thing you want to do is to create additional anxiety. COVID-19 infections are still occurring, so there is no need to rush things until the pandemic is truly behind us.”
3. Help Others
There is evidence to suggest that helping others during the pandemic may not only make you feel better, but it may be good for you as well. Research shows that helping others can be an effective way to alleviate stress and anxiety. One study published during the pandemic found that adults over age 50 who volunteer for about two hours per week have a substantially reduced risk of dying, higher levels of physical activity and an improved sense of well-being. To help others and yourself during June and throughout the year, volunteer in your community, run errands or deliver meals to a home-bound senior or donate to a favorite cause, such as supporting participants in the Alzheimer’s Association The Longest Day event on June 20.
4. Unplug and Disconnect
Technology has dominated our daily lives during the pandemic like never before. While technology has kept us connected through COVID-19, it has also created fatigue for many Americans. Experts warn that excessive stimulation coming from our phones, computers, social media sources and news reports can add to our already heightened anxiety levels. To avoid technology overload, experts advise setting limits on your screen time, avoid carrying your phone everywhere, and disconnecting from digital devices at bedtime.
5. Control Your Stress Before it Controls You
In small doses, stress teaches the brain how to respond in healthy ways to the unexpected, inconvenient or unpleasant realities of daily life. Prolonged or repeated stress, however, can wear down and damage the brain, leading to serious health problems including depression, anxiety disorders, memory loss and increased risk for dementia. Reports indicate that Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers are especially vulnerable to physical and emotional stress. The Alzheimer’s Association offers tips to help manage caregiver stress. Meditation, exercise, listening to music or returning to a favorite activity you have missed during the pandemic are just some ways to manage stress. Do what works best for you.
“COVID-19 has been overwhelming for all of us,” Kallmyer said. “It’s important for people to recognize there are steps they can take to lessen the stress and anxiety they are feeling. It’s easy to take brain health for granted, but more than ever, it’s a good idea to make it a priority.”