Staying Sharp: Tips to Keep Your Brain Healthy

A great way to keep your mental sharpness at its peak is to think of your brain as a muscle. Just as exercising your muscles helps keep you healthy and active, exercising your brain can help protect your memory and fight the effects of diseases affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

To help keep your mental skills sharp, make these healthy habits part of your daily routine:

Stay in shape. Physical activity isn’t just great for yourmuscles; it’s good for brain power, too. Being active for 30 minutes a day, at least three days a week, helps increase blood flow to the brain to keep it healthy. What’s more, exercise may even help new brain cells to grow! Walking is the perfect exercise for most people—you can walk outdoors on nice days or indoors at a mall or community fitness center. The only equipment you need is a well-fitting, comfortable pair of shoes. Other excellent activities include dancing, gardening, housework, cycling, and swimming.

Get regular health check-ups. High blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and not eating properly can interfere with mental sharpness. See your healthcare provider regularly to make sure your health problems are under control—and to nip any new problems in the bud. To stay on top of your health concerns, make sure to follow your healthcare provider’s advice, too.

Check your meds. Some medications, including ones taken for depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, or pain, can dull your memory. Talk to your healthcare provider about all the medications you may be taking and ask if any could be causing memory issues.

Get plenty of sleep. While you’re sleeping, your brain renews itself, so getting less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night (some people may require more or less sleep) can make it harder to concentrate and stay mentally sharp. Healthy sleep habits include:

  • Shutting off the TV, cell phone, tablet, and computer 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Listening to soft, calming music before bed.
  • Making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet.
  • Avoiding caffeinated drinks like coffee after 3:00pm.
  • Avoiding heavy meals too close to bedtime.
  • Setting a regular time for going to bed and waking up.

Become a social butterfly. Spending time with others can help keep your brain sharp. You can try volunteering, joining a club, or taking on a part-time job. Sign up for discussion groups at a senior center, or learn how to play bridge or other group games. Doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles are other great options for staying mentally engaged.

Eat a varied diet. Meals that include plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados are good for your brain. Fish is especially important because it contains omega-3 fatty acids, which your brain needs to stay healthy.

Defuse your stress. Stress can make even the sharpest people feel forgetful. Engage in activities that calm you down, such as yoga, prayer, or meditation. Walking in nature is also a great way to relax.

Medicare Proposes Paying for Advance Care Planning

Have you ever wondered about all those codes you see on a bill or chart at your healthcare provider’s office?  If you’re covered by Medicare—the nation’s largest insurer dedicated exclusively to helping older people with their health expenses—chances are they’re part of a payment system known as the physician fee schedule.  Medicare pays eligible providers for their services based on the codes they use to bill for the patient visit.

Each year, experts from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) review, refine, and tweak the types of services included in the physician fee schedule to make it more responsive to patient needs and professional advice. The proposed schedule for 2016 was just released this week, and it’s got some important new updates that will benefit older Americans.  In particular, CMS is now proposing covering advance care planning (ACP), which would offer patients an important outlet for talking with healthcare providers about their long-term needs and expectations.  Many people have questions about what ACP is and how it works, and the infographic below from the American Geriatrics Society is a helpful guide to the basics when it comes to this important new service.

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Interested in learning more or taking action?  Consider sharing this post or some of the ACP-related resources posted by the Health in Aging Foundation to Twitter (@HealthinAging) and Facebook (Facebook.com/HealthinAging).  You can also submit a comment of support to CMS to let them know you value ACP as part of your care.

Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month

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Sharon A. Brangman, MD
Professor of Medicine
Division Chief, Geriatrics
Director, Central New York Alzheimer’s Disease Assistance Center

SUNY Upstate Medical University

Summer is definitely in full swing: the temperatures are rising, the days are getting longer, and the world is looking a bit more…purple. That may sound strange, but it’s part of a new initiative championed by the Alzheimer’s Association to commemorate the first Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month this June.

In the spirit of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, it’s important to understand what Alzheimer’s disease really is (and what it isn’t) and what you can do if you’re concerned about the condition, already living with it, or supporting someone who has been diagnosed.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s: What’s the Difference?
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are often lumped together, but they aren’t the same thing. Dementia is the umbrella term that covers a wide range of symptoms related to loss of memory and thinking skills severe enough to affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Vascular dementia, which can follow a stroke, is the second most common type. Additionally, many other, often-reversible conditions like thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies can cause dementia-like symptoms.

Despite what many people think, dementia isn’t a normal part of aging. Many people have memory loss issues—but that doesn’t mean they have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Those two conditions mean something very different, which is why it’s so important to get a check-up from a healthcare professional if you’re concerned about your cognitive abilities and the potential for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Continue reading

Multiple Chronic Conditions and You

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I have multiple chronic conditions (MCCs). There—I’ve said it: in my mid-50s, I already have MCCs. Fortunately, nothing is life-threatening, but I do need to keep track of my arthritic toe, my eyesight, and a bit of acid reflux. My friends and I also talk about our weak bladders—likely the precursor to being incontinent later in life, but for now we are managing with the philosophy (in my case, after speaking with my gynecologist): “If there’s a bathroom, we should use it because we never know when we’ll spot another one!”

You’re probably wondering why I’m sharing all of this on the Health in Aging blog. After all, at my age I don’t yet qualify as an older adult. But thinking about all of your conditions any time you get a new diagnosis, try a new vitamin, or are prescribed a new medicine is important at any age. It’s particularly important as you get older, and the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) and the Health in Aging Foundation have tools you can use to create care plans with your providers that take into account all of your conditions and your preferences.

So just what is a chronic condition? Simply put, it’s a physical or mental condition that lasts a year or more and requires ongoing medical attention and/or limits what you can do on a daily basis. At one point, my arthritic left toe was limiting how far I could walk, which, for a New Yorker, had a big impact on my quality of life. Even now, post-surgery, the toe requires an orthotic and monitoring by my doctor. Cute little shoes are basically not an option!

MCC Tools for You
According to Medicare data, more than two-thirds of beneficiaries have 3 or more chronic conditions. If you—or someone you care for—has MCCs, the AGS Health in Aging Foundation has tools that can guide you as you work with clinicians to plan a course of care that takes into account your goals and also helps to prevent having a bad outcome. I always start with our A-Z chapters, as these provide a general overview of a topic and serve as a road map to AGS Health in Aging Foundation resources and those from other organizations. Our chapter on Managing Multiple Health Problems is based on a piece that we created to assist health professionals who are caring for older adults. You can also find other tools, including advice from Drs. Cythia Boyd and Matt McNabney.

Tools for Your Clinicians
The tools and resources that we provide on HealthinAging.org are drawn from the health professional resources of the AGS. In 2012, AGS developed “Guiding Principles for the Care of Older Adults with Multimorbidity: A Stepwise Approach for Clinicians,” which provides a stepwise approach (or one based on a series of stages or steps) for any clinician who is caring for someone with MCCs. One of our primary goals in creating this document was to help clinicians who do not have training in geriatrics and who are treating patients for one or more of their chronic conditions. This is why, with funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), we created and released our MCC Geriatrics Evaluation and Management Strategies (GEMS) app this past May and are currently disseminating it to our specialty physician partners. The MCC GEMS app provides a short overview of the guiding principles for busy clinicians as well as some suggested tools that can be helpful to them in managing their older patients.

I know I need to take an active role in managing my own healthcare. That’s why I look for information from trustworthy sources whenever I have a decision to make. Having worked with leaders in the field of geriatrics and gerontology on creating HealthinAging.org, I also know that the information we provide is based on the best evidence available and that it can help you (or someone you love) make healthcare decisions that are consistent with your goals and preferences.

About the Author
Nancy Lundebjerg is the Chief Executive Officer of the American Geriatrics Society and the AGS Health in Aging Foundation.

Why the Older Americans Act is Important

The Older Americans Act and Me

After they both retired, my parents volunteered with Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to home-bound elders. Programs like Meals on Wheels have been supported through legislation like the Older Americans Act (OAA), a historic bill that was passed in 1965 to help all of us remain independent in our homes and communities as we age, but which has been overdue for reauthorization (the process by which Congress makes changes to laws over time) since 2011.

Independence is something my friends and I think about a lot now that we are in our 50s and 60s, with many of us caring for our own parents, too. We talk about how we can remain independent in our homes for as long as possible—and legislation like the OAA plays an important role in those thought processes.

As CEO of the American Geriatrics Society, I know that two important pillars to remaining independent in our homes as we age are (1) ensuring we have a workforce that is competent to care for us wherever we may reside; and (2) supporting access to home and community-based services. Many of the programs I will likely need when I am older are funded by the OAA. Recently, key legislation has been introduced by U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Patty Murray (D-WA), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to reauthorize the OAA. In so doing, this effort will strengthen support that will address elder abuse, evidence-based disease prevention and health promotion initiatives, effective coordination of services at the federal, state, and local levels, and several other challenges confronting older Americans and their health providers.

What the OAA Supports
In this post, I want to highlight three types of services supported by the OAA that have more than likely impacted you or someone you know: nutritional services, supportive services, and programs to assist family caregivers.

These are services that currently support elders remaining in their communities. They are programs that I—like many of us—will need when I’m older.

  • The nutritional services supported by the OAA—like the Meals on Wheels programs—ensure the health and well-being of older adults by enhancing access to nutritious food at home and in the community. More than 90 percent of older adults receiving home-delivered meals from programs like Meals on Wheels say this support has helped them to remain in their own homes. In fact, Citymeals-on-Wheels, which operates in my native New York, provides 2 million meals to 18,000 older New Yorkers each year. In addition to nutritionally balanced senior meals, staff from Citymeals and volunteers also deliver vital human companionship—an important added benefit for older men and women who get to enjoy regular visits from people they know and can trust.
  • The supportive services authorized by the OAA provide flexible funding to state and local agencies to offer senior transportation programs, information and referral services, case management services, adult day care, chore services, in-home services for frail older adults, and much more. In 2009, for example, this type of support under the OAA helped communities across the country offer nearly 8 million hours of adult day care, some 28 million rides to healthcare professionals’ offices, and upwards of 29 million hours of personal care and homemaker services for older adults in need. It’s especially encouraging to see so many older adults who live alone accessing transportation services: as many of these men and women report, without this important benefit, they might otherwise be homebound.
  • The OAA-funded National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP) helps older adults age in place by promoting family caregiving and reducing reliance on institutionalization. Specifically, the NFCSP provides grants to states and territories, based on their population aged 70 and older, to fund a range of supports that assist family and informal caregivers who help older adults live at home for as long as safely possible. More than 75% of caregivers participating in programs supported by this provision of the OAA say these services have enabled them to provide care longer than would have been possible otherwise, and an astounding 89% of caregivers reported that program services helped them to be better caregivers.

These are but a few of the vital safety net programs supported by the OAA. They’re programs that matter because I’m a caregiver, but also because I know we can all benefit from their sustained support as we grow older. Reauthorizing the OAA is essential to that future reality, and I know that it will take all of us to make that possible moving forward.

So—what can you do?
Well, visiting our Health in Aging Advocacy Center is a great first step. It has lots of easy-to-use resources that can help you get in touch with your Senators and House Representative to make sure that your voice is heard as we look toward a future with an even stronger OAA—one that we helped shape here and now!