Celebrate Older American´s Month by Taking Steps to Stay Mentally Sharp6 years ago | Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
May is Older American’s Month. Since this year’s focus is on activities that will enhance seniors’ physical, mental and emotional well-being, there is no better time to talk about what psychologists like to call “executive functioning,” what it is and why it’s important to protect it.
Executive functioning is literally the “command and control” center of our brains. It helps us manage all the various tasks we do throughout the day, from planning a trip to driving to work to making dinner.
Perhaps the best way to think about this higher level cognitive ability is to make the analogy to an orchestra. If all the tasks our brains take on are the instruments, then executive functioning is the conductor. As the conductor, executive functioning makes sure all the different brain functions work together in the right way to play the music that creates the fabric of our lives. If the conductor misses a beat, then the orchestra misses one as well and the piece it is playing starts to fall apart. Keeping with our analogy, then, if our executive functioning ability starts to fail, then we are faced with a myriad of problems including our ability to do the following:
- Start and stop our behaviors, thoughts and actions at the appropriate times which can result in impulsiveness
- Shift our attention from one task to another as we move throughout the day and be able to respond appropriately to changes or new information that comes our way
- Respond appropriately with emotions and actions that correspond to what is happening around us as well as to the behavior of others
- Begin something and then come up appropriate responses and needed changes to achieve our goals
- Stay on task and complete it rather than being so easily distracted that we jump from activity to activity with little forward motion
- Make plans to achieve goals or complete task rather than leaving a trail of half-finished tasks
- Being aware of how our behavior may impact others and how others are reacting to us
As you can imagine, all of these abilities are critical for older Americans to be able to successfully manage their day-to-day lives and especially their own medical and health care needs. Any decrease in executive functioning could have a direct negative impact on their health.
Executive Function Declines with Age
As with most of our body’s systems, our cognitive abilities – including executive functioning – decline with age and especially after age 70. Our memory may not be as sharp as it once was. It takes us longer to “think through” problems. Our attention spans decrease. Multitasking becomes more challenging. Other elements of executive function, such as problem-solving, learning new information and manipulating our environments, also decline. Language abilities such as being able to name common objects also tend to decline in older adults.
The good news is that very few of us need to function at “peak performance” as we get older so it’s now very common to see someone at 90 still functioning well.
According the University of California San Francisco, these declines in executive functioning as we age, or because of injury or disease, manifest themselves in a variety of ways. These include:
- Difficulty organizing
- Difficulty with planning and initiation (getting started)
- Inability to multitask
- Difficulty with verbal fluency
- Trouble planning for the future
- Difficulty processing, storing, and/or retrieving information
- Mood swings
- Lack of concern for people and animals
- Loss of interest in activities
- Socially inappropriate behavior
- Inability to learn from consequences from past actions
- Difficulty with abstract concepts (the inability to make the leap from the symbolic to the real world)
- Unawareness or denial that their behavior is a problem
How to protect our executive functioning?
The adage “you are what you eat” is especially true when it comes to the impact that your diet can have on keeping your brain’s executive functioning at its best. It is important to incorporate those foods in your diet that enhance executive function and avoid those that can harm it.
Credible research suggests certain foods for protecting cognitive function, which includes executive functioning. These include:
- Fruits such as avocados and especially blueberries, which are now recognized as a major “brain food” for memory
- Vegetables such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, celery and beets
- Nuts, olive oil, coffee
- Fish and especially salmon
- Dark chocolate, honey
What do all the “must have” foods have in common?
The answer is that they are rich in the nutrients that our brains need to function at their best. And unless you have absorption or other medical problems, getting nutrients from fresh foods is always better than from supplements since they are in a form that our bodies can use the best.
Examples of nutrients necessary for executive functioning and foods rich in them are:
- Magnesium: Almonds, cashews, spinach, black beans, brown rice, avocado, yogurt, bananas, oatmeal and chicken breast
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Soybeans, walnuts, salmon, canola oil, sardines, chia seeds, and flaxseeds
- Selenium: Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, turkey, eggs and spinach
- Vitamin A: Carrots, sweet potatoes, dark green leafy vegetables, squash, cantaloupe, bell peppers and dried fruits
- Vitamin C: Red pepper, oranges and other citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, kale, pineapple and Brussel sprouts
- Vitamin B6: Chickpeas, tuna, potatoes, banana, rice, raisins, spinach and chicken
- Vitamin B9 (Folic Acid): Dark leafy greens such as spinach and collard greens, asparagus, citrus fruits, and seeds and nuts
- Vitamin B12: Beef, fish and dairy products
- Vitamin E: Almonds, Swiss chard, spinach, plant oils, broccoli, papaya and olives
- Water: It’s important to stay hydrated (aim for 6-8 drinks per day)
At the same time you increase your consumption of “executive function foods,” work to reduce or eliminate those foods which have been shown to have a negative impact on cognitive function, including:
- Saturated fats
- Simple carbohydrates
- Trans fats
- Artificial sweeteners
- Processed meats
Test Nutrient Levels to Stay on Track
Even if you’re following these guidelines, you need to make sure that the nutrients you are getting are in the right amounts and balance for your body. Also make sure that your body is absorbing these nutrients adequately.
The best way to do that is by getting your nutrient levels tested and talking to a qualified healthcare professional about properly balancing your nutrients. You can also talk with them to determine whether you have any barriers to absorption such as certain medications or possible diseases and what you can do to address these.
After all, what good is doing all you can to eat healthy if your body isn’t absorbing the nutrients?
Enjoy your healthy life!
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