Brain health in retirement

Ken Hargreaves
Client goals are the cornerstone of our planning process. Every couple has a different goal they want to achieve; some desire fewer taxes, while others dream of buying a motorhome and touring the continent. Over the last few years, we’ve begun to notice a common non-financial goal that has really stood out: Brain Health.
More and more clients have been voicing “brain health” as an important goal of theirs leading into and through their retirement years. After all, physical health and mental health should go hand-in-hand in pursuing an active retirement lifestyle. It’s an area we believe is important to plan for, just like planning for a financially healthy retirement. And as our muscles and joints start to show age, so too do our cognitive functions.
Areas of the brain responsible for such functions as language and memory shrink as neuron synapses are destroyed, leaving us cognitively impaired. Unfortunately, this process usually accelerates once we retire.¹ Eventually, if left unchecked and untreated, the brain’s cells will begin to perish and Alzheimer’s disease and other debilitating illnesses may develop.
Fortunately, there are ways to stave off synaptic and brain cell destruction that lead to cognitive dysfunction. Taking these steps is crucial if you want to fully enjoy your retirement after diligently working towards them your whole career.

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe our brain’s ability to adapt according to stimuli. The more ‘plastic’ your brain is, the better it will change according to different needs and experiences. Your brain will basically be able to ‘rewire’ itself quicker and more efficiently. But your brain is like a muscle – it needs to be worked out in order to stay fit and malleable. And if you don’t use it, you lose it.

How to keep your brain fit

Exercise

Getting your heart pumping will increase blood flow to the brain, delivering more significant amounts of oxygen and nutrients to your brain and thus helping ward off dementia.² Oxygen and nutrients help create more white brain matter, which is essential to maintaining brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other.³
Exercising will also reduce cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, prevent diabetes, and keep arteries soft and elastic, therefore reducing the risk of stroke. Exercise also does wonders for your mental health as well. Besides increased dopamine levels and a greater amount of dopamine receptors⁴ , exercise provides an opportunity to connect with like-minded people, forming a social support network that will keep you active and busy in retirement. In Sarasota, exercise options include pickleball for cardiovascular health, golf for improved concentration and balance,⁵ and a variety of fitness centers for strength training, yoga, or even a sunset beach walk on Siesta Key.

Diet

A daily fare packed with leafy greens, legumes (beans, lentils, peas), nuts, fruits, fish, other vegetables, and berries is imperative to maintaining a healthy brain. Your diet ties into your overall physical health – a healthy diet improves cardiovascular health, which in turn reduces blood pressure and keeps veins healthy. A diet full of antioxidants such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and certain vitamins will help reduce oxidative stress, which is responsible for cancer-causing ‘free radicals.’ These free radicals attack brain cells and damage DNA, leading to a slew of health problems.
Individual foods that show promise in preventing or delaying dementia due to their neuroprotective elements are kale and spinach.⁶
Conversely, a sodium-heavy diet can lead to a stiffening of the veins, thereby reducing blood flow, increasing blood pressure, and increasing the chance of a stroke. Accordingly, the intake of red meat, cheese, fried and fast food, sweets, and pastries should be limited.⁷

Hearing

Surprisingly enough, there is a strong correlation to hearing decline and dementia. According to a John Hopkins study, those with strong hearing loss are five times more likely to develop dementia, and even those with only mild hearing loss have double the risk.⁸
The question is, does hearing loss contribute to dementia, or does dementia lead to hearing loss? Experts have yet to make any conclusions, but recent studies are illuminating. Colorado scientists conducted research that hearing loss leads to a shrinkage of the auditory cortex – to make up for it, other parts of the brain are rewired to help make up for the loss of hearing, leaving you with less brain power for other important functions.⁹ In such a case, it is extremely important to slow the process, which is an unfortunate aspect of neuroplasticity. A hearing aid may prevent this process of auditory cortex shrinkage and the resulting cognitive burden.¹⁰
Staying on top of your hearing is crucial. Get your hearing and ears checked regularly and if a doctor prescribes a hearing aid, make sure to try and wear it – you’ll eventually get used to it and it may help delay dementia. Many modern hearing aids are hardly noticeable as well. Until then, keep the music down, wear ear plugs, and take any other preventative measures to help protect your hears. Hearing aids can be quite costly and medicare doesn’t cover them at the time of writing.

Smoking

We all know smoking is unhealthy for us, but probably lesser known are the devastating affects it has on the brain as we age. In fact, people who smoke are 30% more likely to develop dementia, and 40% more like to develop Alzheimer’s disease, than those who never smoked. And it’s easy to understand why. Smoking leads to oxidate stress, damages blood vessels, and reduces blood oxygen levels. Smokers have a higher risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and, in general, worse cardiovascular health.¹¹
If you want to avoid dementia in later life and you are a smoker, you need to quit smoking now.

Alcohol

Having a glass of wine in the evening or a beer on the weekend isn’t going to hurt you. But heavy and prolonged alcohol abuse definitely will, in more ways than one.
Excessive alcohol consumption damages the brain. The hippocampus becomes smaller, which affects your ability to learn and form memories. In fact, heavy drinkers have a 300% greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease!¹² Alcohol can be so devastating that it has its own form of dementia – alcohol-related dementia. Continuous heavy drinking results in B1 (Thiamine) deficiencies,¹² which in turn leads to iron deposits in the brain,¹³ damaging brain tissue and disrupting neurological processes.¹⁴
As with smoking, if you want to avoid or delay dementia, you need to cut back on or cut out alcohol from your diet.

Intellectual Pursuits

Similar to our bodies, our brains need to be constantly challenged to maintain good health and neuroplasticity. For example, learning a new language seems to increase both gray and white matter in the brain¹⁵, resulting in better cognitive performance and an increase in hippocampus size. Creating art and learning a musical instrument also improves cognitive function.¹⁵
Complex board games such as chess may also help stave off dementia due to the problem-solving skills necessary to play them that improve neuroplasticity.¹⁶ Intellectual pursuits and high levels of education strongly correlate with a delay in the onset of symptoms associated with dementia¹⁷, so it would behoove all of us to pick up a book, paint brush, or instrument and learn something new.
Similar to going to the gym or playing sports, finding a hobby or passion will bring joy and happiness. You will feel a sense of purpose that many lose upon retiring and you will surround yourself with like-minded peers. Not only will your brain be healthier, but your outlook on life will change as you discover new meanings to life, passions to explore, and purposes to fulfill.

Meditation

Mindfulness training also hosts a large number of neural advantages that may slow down or improve cognitive decline.¹⁸ Meditating thickens the prefrontal cortex¹⁹, reduces neurogenic inflammation²⁰, and slows brain aging.²¹ Meditation can be done in as little as ten minutes a day or as long as you like. You’ll find yourself at greater peace and happier with nearly zero effort.

In Conclusion

If you want to live a long, happy life, you should protect your brain and your body. By eating well, exercising, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and pursuing intellectual pursuits, you can extremely reduce your chances of developing dementia and help maintain a mentally flexible brain well into your golden years. But that doesn’t mean you should live like a monk. As the old adage goes, everything in moderation, including moderation! You should be enjoying your retirement years, and making great sacrifices surely won’t make retirement enjoyable.

What does this have to do with financial planning?

Physical well-being and good mental health should be worthy end goals on their own, but in any case, your wallet will greatly thank you for your attention towards your health! Currently, retired couples should have over $300,000 saved to cover medical costs in retirement.²² If history is any indication, we can expect medical costs to continue going up. Doesn’t it make sense to focus on prevention while it’s still possible?
A good financial plan is holistic in nature. All things should be accounted for, and health costs are one of them. While we can’t send you daily emails to remind you to eat your vegetables, we can advise on ways to cut down overall costs on a lifetime scale. We want you to not only be financially fit but mentally fit as well.
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Further Reading

  1. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10654-017-0347-7
  2. https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/newsroom/articles/year-2021/exercise-boosts-blood-flow-to-the-brain.html
  3. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-white-matter-in-the-brain-98119
  4. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_surprising_ways_exercise_changes_your_brain
  5. https://news.usc.edu/trojan-family/golfs-unexpected-health-benefits-for-seniors
  6. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-do-we-know-about-diet-and-prevention-alzheimers-disease
  7. https://www.rush.edu/news/new-mind-diet-may-significantly-protect-against-alzheimers-disease
  8. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-hidden-risks-of-hearing-loss
  9. https://myhearingcenters.com/blog/brain-respond-hearing-loss/
  10. https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jgs.13649
  11. https://www.alzheimersresearchuk.org/blog/all-you-need-to-know-about-smoking-and-dementia/
  12. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/alcohol-alzheimers#effects-of-excessive-alcohol
  13. https://neurosciencenews.com/b1-deficiency-alcohol-dementia-16992/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6789770/
  15. https://www.healthline.com/health/rewiring-your-brain#music
  16. https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-playing-chess
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3622463/#ref26
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6008507/
  19. https://askthescientists.com/brain-meditation
  20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4940234/
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447722/
  22. https://www.fidelity.com/viewpoints/personal-finance/plan-for-rising-health-care-costs
  • Ken Hargreaves

    A Florida native, and full-time Sarasota resident, Ken founded WealthGen Advisors, LLC after spending more than fourteen years in the financial advisory industry. Prior to founding WealthGen Advisors, Ken spent almost a decade in New York and then Texas as Vice President at The Capital Group, a $2T global investment manager serving institutional clients and pension funds.

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