Four Great Tips for Brain-Healthy Holidays

Which holidays does your family celebrate? Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, the Winter Solstice celebration, New Year's Eve … these traditional festivities are a time when we come together to enjoy the spirit of the season.

Family around the Christmas dinner table

Some holiday traditions are great for our cognitive well-being. We might experience a spiritual boost that can reduce harmful hormones in the brain. We spend more time with others, and we get lots of mental stimulation. On the other hand, recent research reveals a few pitfalls to avoid:

1. Control holiday stress.

Many studies confirm that stress is very bad for our cognitive health. In October 2018, the American Academy of Neurology noted that stress hormones can actually cause shrinkage of the brain!

No question about it — the holidays can be the most stressful time of the year. All the shopping, decorating, baking and hosting large gatherings can be fun … but taken together, this extra workload can put us under a lot of strain. Adding to it, maybe our job includes end-of-the-year tasks, in a month with fewer workdays. And if you're providing care for an adult with disabilities or an elderly loved one, your calendar might already be filled to the max with doctor appointments and other care support. This year, figure out which holiday tasks are "must dos" and which you can skip or pass to someone else. If gift giving has gotten out of hand, talk to other family members. They may be grateful to shift to something more low-key.

2. Don't overdo the holiday toasts.

For most of us, an occasional glass of champagne or two won't hurt. But drinking too much can be very bad for the brain.

Earlier this year, experts from Canada's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health announced that heavy drinking is the top risk factor for dementia. And while some experts believe moderate drinking might be beneficial, consuming even a little too much on a regular basis can cause shrinkage of some very important parts of the brain. If you're having trouble controlling your drinking, and find yourself consuming too much eggnog for your noggin, abstaining entirely might be one of the best gifts you can give yourself.

3. Watch out for cold-weather overexertion.

Snow is almost synonymous with the holidays. How beautiful the colored lights are when reflected on a blanket of white! But studies show that snowy, frigid days also could increase the risk of strokes and heart attacks, both of which can damage the brain.

Some experts believe that the risk of stroke — a "brain attack" — increases during very cold weather, especially if there is a dramatic, rapid drop in temperature. They speculate this is because cold weather can raise our blood pressure and cause blood vessels to constrict. And the statistical connection between plunging temperatures and the risk of heart attack is even more well-established.

Here’s an interesting statistic: Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that there's a slight dip in heart-related hospitalizations for two days after a heavy snowfall — but two days later, there's a 23 percent increase! They speculate this is because people hunker down while the snow is falling, but then venture out, perhaps experiencing "snow-shoveler's infarction" or other heart problems caused by overexertion in the cold.

4. Protect against head injuries.

Hanging holiday lights, walking on icy sidewalks, and even those beautiful icicles can lead to dangerous head injuries.

A brisk walk during the holidays is a great stress-buster. But slipping on an icy sidewalk or an unshoveled stairway can cause a serious brain injury. Take extra care as you make your way around this winter. Wear shoes or boots with traction soles. Slow down and pay attention to both what's underfoot and what's ahead of you. Use the handrails on stairs, and remember that ice can hide beneath a patch of snow and be almost invisible on a sidewalk.

Icicles are another classic symbol of the season. They're pretty to look at, but Dr. Mark Cichon of the Loyola University Medical Center warns, "An icicle is like a sharp, stiletto-heel dagger. Coupled with the forceful dynamics of impact from falling a distance, it can cause a serious injury." Don’t walk underneath icicles, and be cautious in removing them.

And here's a holiday hazard to avoid even if you live in the Sun Belt: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently noted that 15,000 people in the U.S. each year go to the emergency room after a decorating mishap. Many have fallen off a ladder or chair while decking the halls, often sustaining a serious head injury.

If you're hitting the road during the holidays, remember that automobile accidents are another leading cause of brain injuries, and senior drivers are at higher risk. To learn more, read "Dec. 3 – 7, 2018, Is Older Driver Safety Awareness Week" in this issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter.

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.