Six Ways Dementia Caregivers Can Protect Their Own Brain Health

It’s known as the 36-hour day — the loving but demanding experience of caring at home for a person living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. Amid the press of responsibilities, caregivers can lose focus on the importance of caring for their own brain health. With research increasingly showing that a variety of wellness activities can potentially delay the onset of dementia, it’s crucial for caregivers to incorporate brain health for themselves into their daily routines.

“Studies tell us that Alzheimer’s risk can be mitigated and its progression slowed by taking care of our brains,” said Carol Cummings, Senior Director of Optimum Life at Brookdale Senior Living.

She says brain health is especially pertinent for caregivers because ongoing stress has a negative impact on mental function.

“Everyone experiences some stress now and then, but the chronic stress that caregivers can face is, in a sense, toxic for brain health,” Cummings said.

However, there are ways caregivers can boost their brain health despite their busy schedules. It begins with putting themselves on their own priority list.

“They need to understand having an identity outside of caregiving is absolutely essential,” Cummings said. “They must try to overcome any feelings of guilt about it and take time for themselves.”

While a periodic break from caregiving will in itself help relieve stress, she says caregivers would do well to use that time for activities that build cognitive function. “This involves all dimensions of wellness — physical, mental and spiritual.”

Cummings recommends that caregivers:

  • Engage in aerobic exercise: Keeping the body moving helps the brain with neurogenesis, or the forming of new brain cells. Thirty minutes of fitness on most days of the week is all that’s needed. “You don’t have to do it all at once, either,” Cummings said. “If you exercise for intervals of at least 10 minutes throughout the day, that’s fine.” Walking is sufficient; other low-impact activities such as swimming and biking are good choices, too.
  • Build strength and balance: “I also recommend doing some kind of resistance training, such as Pilates or working with stretch bands, two or three days a week. And for caregivers over age 65, balance exercises are important to reduce the risk of falling.” She notes that after a few sessions with a trainer at a community recreation or senior center to learn these techniques, caregivers could likely do them on their own at home.
  • Connect with other people: “It’s very easy for caregivers to become isolated, which is detrimental to brain health,” Cummings said. “Make a point of taking time to get together with friends or participate in organized group activities on a regular basis.”
  • Eat healthily: “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Cummings said. She suggests adopting a Mediterranean diet, which favors vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts instead of meats and sweets.
  • Cross-train the brain: Doing a daily crossword isn’t sufficient. “You don’t want to focus on just one activity,” Cummings said. “It’s important to challenge the brain in different ways and to exercise creativity. Painting or playing music are great examples.” She notes research showing that ballroom dancing can reduce dementia risk thanks to its blend of artistry, social engagement and physical movement.
  • Nourish the spirit: Having a sense of purpose and connecting with something greater than oneself also enriches the brain. “For many people, meditation, prayer and other aspects of the spiritual domain are very helpful.”

Cummings says it’s so important for caregivers to pay attention to their brain health that she once prescribed it for a caregiver who was one of her patients. “I told him he absolutely had to go out to the movies with friends and play golf. The fact that his doctor ordered it made him feel better about taking the time away from caregiving to do it and it had a big positive impact on him.”