Talk to the Grandkids About Brain Health

Sunday, September 9, Is Grandparents Day

Grandfather hugging grandson

Grandparents are all about good advice! With a lifetime of experience, they can offer great perspective. But will the grandkids listen? From time immemorial, younger people have had a tendency to shrug off a lot of the advice of their elders.

When it comes to one topic — brain health — the stakes are high for beloved grandchildren. One thing we know: While it's never too late to take better care of our brains, the younger we start, the better.

Grandparents can put a human face on this advice. They can assure grandchildren that older adults still want many of the same things they wanted as teens: independence, fun, enough money to be comfortable, and a sense that they matter in the world. Remaining mentally sharp ups the odds considerably that these things will happen.

Today, there's a lot more science to back up these grandparental admonitions:

Stay in school. In April 2018, University of Southern California public health experts released the latest large study showing that "education gives people an edge in their later years, helping them to keep dementia at bay and their memories intact." Mental stimulation and studying encourage the growth of brain cells and build protective connections in the brain.

Learn a new language. Researchers from the Université de Montréal noted that people who are bilingual use their brains in a more efficient manner that can protect the frontal regions, which are most vulnerable to the effects of aging. The American Academy of Neurology has found that speaking a second language can delay Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia, as well as improve stroke recovery.

Sign up for band or orchestra. Many studies show that playing an instrument enhances learning, protects memories and encourages the growth of new brain cells. University of Maryland School of Medicine researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, Ph.D., said, "Musical activity throughout life may serve as a challenging cognitive exercise, making your brain fitter and more capable of accommodating the challenges of aging." (If your grandkids enjoy TED Talks, here's a good one that explains the effect.)

Turn down the music. Generations of elders have said, "I can hear it even though you've got on headphones!" and "Wear earplugs at that rock concert!" They were right — a lifetime of loud music can lead to hearing loss. But that's not all. A May 2018 study from The Ohio State University noted, "Hearing loss, even minor deficits, can take a toll in young people — they're using cognitive resources that could be preserved until much later in life. Most concerning, this early hearing loss could pave the way for dementia."

Keep moving! Today, genetic testing can tell us something about our risk for Alzheimer's disease. We can't do anything about our genetic heritage, but according to Prof. Jennifer Heisz of McMaster University in Ontario, "Being inactive may completely negate the protective effects of a healthy set of genes." So let's replace that tired, old cliché, "You kids get off my lawn," with "You kids get off the couch"!

Don't be ageist. Multiple studies show that young people with negative attitudes about old age actually have a higher risk of dementia in later life. Here's one way to talk to today's youth about that topic: Many young people, very aware of social justice issues, want to fight prejudice based on characteristics like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and intellectual and physical differences. Yet these same younger folks might make derogatory remarks about older adults. And of course, if equality and justice aren't motivation enough, self-interest might be. Most young people in the U.S. today will experience old age. What goes around comes around!

Grandparents hope they gifted their grandkids with great genes — but modeling a great lifestyle is just as important of an inheritance. So talk it up, grandparents. Even if grandkids don't pay a whole lot of attention right now, you are planting an important seed.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.