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It's important to stay mentally healthy no matter your age.SUPPLIED

There are few things that Jocelyn Kabatoff prioritizes as much as the health of her brain. Living a busy life in Calgary, Kabatoff tries to keep her stress level low. She walks neighbours’ dogs, bakes bread from scratch and knits. She’s socially active. And she makes a conscious effort to maintain meaningful connections with friends and neighbours.

While this all sounds like a standard recipe for happiness, Kabatoff’s self-care tactics are about more than feeling good. She wants to keep her mind in shape.

Kabatoff has a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Her mom passed away a little over a decade ago at age 71. That spurred the now forty-something to take better care of herself, both physically and mentally. She makes a point of eating antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries. She walks five kilometres every day. She works on Sudoku puzzles. She volunteers with a number of local charities. And she takes continuing education classes. While fighting dementia is always at the back of her mind, her routines are about staying mentally sharp in the here and now.

“I know you can't completely prevent Alzheimer’s. If you're going to get it, you’re going to get it,” she says. “But I believe that if you live a well-rounded healthy life, you’re less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. My mom worked so hard and always put herself after everyone else. I live my life quite differently.”

People often look at these kinds of mental exercises as something seniors may do. But as Kabatoff has shown, brain health is an important concern at any age. Carmen Bellows, senior mental health consultant at Sun Life, says that the biggest key to mental well-being – whether you’re 20, 45 or 70 years old – is making a real-life connections. She advises people take steps to reduce social isolation, avoid comparing themselves to others on social media and engage in creative activities like art and music throughout every stage of life.

“We spend more time and money on maintaining our cars than we do on our mental health,” Bellows explains. “Being mentally fit means connecting with other people. That could be through volunteering, being involved in your community, or getting to know your neighbours or people at your church, mosque or temple.”

Jennifer Heisz, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University, says that physical activity can also play a huge part in mental fitness. We often see our brains as being separate from our bodies. Heisz’s research at McMaster emphasizes the connection between physical and mental well-being.

“Our research has shown that physical inactivity can contribute to dementia risk as much as genetics. Given that most individuals are not at genetic risk, physical exercise may be an effective strategy for preventing dementia,” Heisz says. “Our research has also demonstrated that engaging in regular physical activity early in life can protect you against developing dementia later in life. It improves memory and focused attention, and helps the brain to be more flexible and adaptable as we age.”

Both Heisz and Bellows agree that maintaining mental wellness requires a holistic approach. Good physical health, proper sleep, engaging in relationships, and regular mental and social stimulation all contribute to quality of life in our younger years. And in many cases, better cognitive functionality later in life. That means that Kabatoff is on the right track with her “use it or lose it” lifestyle.

“Ultimately, I decided I wanted to have a nice life,” Kabatoff says. “And if practicing this nice life means that I’m not going to get Alzheimer’s, that’s great.”

Quick tips for staying mentally fit

It doesn’t matter what age you are, there are a few things you can do to keep your brain healthy. Here are some ideas from the Canadian Mental Health Association on how to do just that:
  • Look for ways to socialize with others
  • Enjoy healthy foods
  • Look for volunteering opportunities
  • Exercise at your own pace
  • Manage and reduce stress

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