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Posted: June 29, 2006

Spousal Caregiving

How Caregivers Can Maintain a Healthy Brain

Bill Andrew

As caregivers, we are constantly challenged by the requirements of our spouse's caregiving needs. Nobody taught us how to be a caregiver -- most of us, if not all of us, learned the hard way. That learning challenged the brains of many of us since we were not prepared for this new phase of our lives -- especially those of us at retirement age.

Were you prepared for this new learning curve? I know that I was not. Recently, I found a "guide to brain health and wellness" that I wanted to share with you. Perhaps it will help us to be better prepared for the spousal caregiving challenges that lie in our respective futures.

Ten Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Brain is a brochure prepared for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, in collaboration with AARP, by Paul Nussbaum, PhD. He is a licensed clinical neuropsychologist with more than 20 years experience in the care of older persons suffering from dementia and related disorders. Dr. Nussbaum is also the author of Brain Health and Wellness. While all 10 tips in this brochure may not apply to all of us at this point in our lives, many of them are still worth considering as we provide care for our loved ones.

First, a few factoids: Did you know that the human brain typically weighs 2-4 pounds and is made up of 60% fat? Did you know that the human brain is considered the single greatest system in the universe? Did you know that the human brain's cellular structure produces our every thought, emotion, and behavior? Did you know that the human brain is the world's greatest information processing system?

Given these facts -- and our responsibility as spousal caregivers -- it only seems logical that we would want to make sure our brains are healthy and well. Would you be interested in a "guide to brain health and wellness?" I know I would -- and I am!

Our lifestyle should be considered a lifelong process for maintaining a healthy brain since so much depends upon our brains. Even at retirement ages, there can be obvious benefits to those of us who are spousal caregivers. Building a healthy and robust brain can have wonderful benefits for our central nervous system as well as delaying the onset of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

These 10 tips for brain health and wellness that follow should become essential ingredients of our respective lifestyles as caregivers as well as for our "personal support family:"

1: Don't smoke. Smoking represents a major risk factor for cancer, heart disease and stroke. These leading causes of death represent an ongoing concern for all Americans. Nonsmokers might consider taking an empathetic approach to smokers who are trying to quit, and parents might use a "tough love" approach with their children to make sure they don’t even start.

2: Follow your physician’s advice. Your relationship with your physician is critical to your health. Remember, though, that as a consumer of health services, your doctor is your employee, so establish a good working relationship based on the understanding that you are the boss of your body. We must develop a proactive attitude toward maintaining our health and take responsibility to change those aspects of our lifestyles that are minimizing our longevity potential. Our physicians can help guide this process.

3: Exercise regularly. Exercise and physical activity continue to emerge as primary components of a healthy lifestyle at any age. Aerobic exercise, weight training and recreation are critical not just to our cardiovascular health but to our brain health, as well. Every time our heart beats, 25% of its output goes to our brains -- quite a large market share! Clearly, maintaining efficient blood flow to our brains through regular exercise promotes health. If you don’t exercise regularly, start by walking around the block tonight and build from there.

4: Reduce the overall calories you consume daily. We Americans tend not to under-consume anything -- including food. Yet the leading factor for longevity in animals is caloric restriction. This finding has yet to be demonstrated in humans. However, provided you get your daily nutritional needs from the USDA’s food pyramid, you should pay close attention to how much you eat. Follow the advice two physicians gave me: "never go to bed stuffed and eat only 80% of what you intend to consume at every meal."

5: Socialize and have fun. We Americans specialize in stress, with little understanding of how to have fun. We need more time to socialize, celebrate and laugh! Some of us have walls around us that keep other people away. As humans, though, we need to be engaged and to be social. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, once stated that every time "we lose an elder from our village, we lose a library." If we begin to think of everyone as a library, it becomes clear that we can learn from others.

6: Develop your spirituality. Evidence continues to emerge that prayer is a health-promoting behavior and that attendance at formalized places of worship may have more significance to our health than we understand. Meditation, yoga, relaxation procedures and prayer have neurophysiological bases. They help to alter our existing inner balance for the better. Praying or meditating daily can help us combat the stresses of life and focus on the challenges ahead.

7: Engage in mentally stimulating activities. "Mental stimulation" refers to the ways our brains respond to stimuli in the environment. Novel and complex stimuli are health-promoting for the brain. New learning translates to neurophysiological growth and to mental stimulation in the same way that aerobics translates to cardiovascular health. We can benefit from being challenged, from learning information and skills that we do not yet understand, and from engaging in pursuits that are initially hard for us!

8: Maintain your role and sense of purpose. Retirement, as it is presently envisioned in this country, is not good for the human brain, which benefits from environments rich in novel and complex stimuli. Retirement by definition reinforces disengagement and passivity. Our nation might consider prioritizing social engagement across the lifespan -- from a brain-health perspective. Although it is important to allow elders to choose more passive lifestyles, many may benefit from an understanding of the importance of actively participating in society and finding personally relevant roles and senses of purpose.

9: Seek financial stability. Research clearly demonstrates that having some money late in life correlates with better health. Therefore, a practical tip for maintaining lifelong health is to hire a financial planner and begin a savings plan that will provide some money late in life. Financial planners do not consider themselves to be health promoters, but they are. We are never too young or too old to begin saving -- and the less money we make, the faster we need to get started!

10: Engage family and friends. Developing and maintaining a social network of relationships is important from a health perspective. Our friends and family help us stay active and involved in the fabric of society. They can provide us with emotional support and can nurture trust. Our roles in life, from child to parent to grandparent, exist within the family; they provide much health and human enrichment across the lifespan. And intimacy, broadly defined, is itself a health-promoting behavior at any age.

How did you rate as you read the above tips? Are you practicing all 10 tips, or are their activities that you should consider starting that would maintain, and perhaps improve, your personal brain health as a spousal caregiver?

Remember, your brain health is critical to your physical health. If your brain is not working "on all cylinders," then how would you have the physical capabilities to provide the many services required by your loved one? As a caregiver, it is incumbent for you to be there with all your faculties for your spouse when and where needed. Without you, who would he/she have?

Personally, I rated a "10 of 10" on these tips. I hope you did too.

What did you think of these tips? If you would like to share your opinion, please e-mail me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"I know God will not give me anything I can't handle;

I just wish that He didn't trust me so much."

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta ( 1910-97)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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