Remember, Memory Loss is Not Inevitable and Can Be Reduced or Limited

Word on the tip of your tongue? Misplaced your keys or glasses again?  Mixing up your kids’ names when you talk about them? If you recognize any of these behaviors, you can probably relax; they all are common memory lapses that increase when we’re tired, stressed, overworked, and as we age. Who hasn’t walked into a room, gotten distracted, and returned to our previous location without the book, phone number, file or other item we originally went searching for? Forgetfulness, distraction, and memory are affected by time and by what’s going on in our lives. But there are a number of steps we can practice to improve and strengthen our memory and warning signs we should heed that could point to a more severe memory problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

As we grow older, we experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions we’ve always taken for granted. It takes longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.

The first step to staying mentally sharp as we age is to understand the difference between normal forgetfulness and serious memory problems. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, we have to “use it or lose it.” Our lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of our brain.

It’s important to be aware of ways that our health, environment, and lifestyle may contribute to memory loss. Sometimes, even what looks like significant memory loss can be caused by treatable conditions and reversible external factors. Examples include:

  • Medication side effects. Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause cognitive problems and memory loss as a side effect.
  • Depression. Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, making it hard for us to concentrate, stay organized, remember things, and get things done.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning.
  • Thyroid problems. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Medication can reverse the symptoms.
  • Alcohol abuse. Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and alcohol abuse leads to memory loss.
  • Dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia.

Preventing memory loss and mental decline

Just as physical exercise can make and keep your body stronger, mental exercise can make your brain work better and lower the risk of mental decline. Try to find brain exercises that you find enjoyable. The more pleasurable an activity is to you, the more powerful its effect will be on your brain. You can make some activities more enjoyable by appealing to your senses, such as by playing music during the exercise, or lighting a scented candle, or rewarding yourself after you’ve finished. Play games that involve strategy, like Chess or Scrabble, crossword and number puzzles. Read newspapers, magazines and books. Challenge yourself by playing a musical instrument or learning new recipes or a foreign language. The more you exercise your brain, the more you’ll continue learning and strengthening your brain at the same time.

Additionally, the same practices that contribute to healthy aging and physical vitality also contribute to healthy memory.

  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts brain growth factors and encourages the development of new brain cells.
  • Stay social. People who don’t have social contact with family and friends are at higher risk for memory problems than people who have strong social ties.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats. Antioxidants, found in abundance in fresh produce, literally keep our brain cells from “rusting.” And foods rich in omega-3 fats, such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed, are particularly good for our brain and memory.
  • Manage stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, the process of forming and storing new memories so we can retrieve them later. Sleep deprivation also reduces the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus and causes problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.

When to worry

The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling—the memory lapses have little impact on our daily performance and ability to do what we want to do. When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts our work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, we may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.

Symptoms that are reasons for concern include difficulty performing simple tasks, such as paying bills or dressing, or forgetting things you’ve done many times; getting lost or disoriented in familiar places; frequently forgetting common words, and constantly repeating phrases or stories; and trouble in judgment, when making choices, or socially inappropriate behaviors that never existed in the past. If you or someone close to you is exhibiting any of these behaviors, you should consult with a physician.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Pumping Iron Through Your Body

Iron, one of the most abundant metals on Earth, is essential to most life forms and to normal human physiology. Iron is an integral part of many proteins and enzymes that maintain good health. It is an essential component of proteins involved in oxygen transport, and also is essential for the regulation of cell growth. Iron deficiency limits oxygen delivery to cells, resulting in fatigue, poor work performance, and decreased immunity. On the other hand, excess amounts of iron can result in toxicity and even death.

The World Health Organization considers iron deficiency the number one nutritional disorder in the world. As many as 80 percent of the world’s population may be iron deficient, while 30 percent may have iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency develops gradually and usually begins with a negative iron balance, when iron intake does not meet the daily need for dietary iron. Iron deficiency anemia is an advanced stage of iron depletion. It occurs when storage sites of iron are deficient and blood levels of iron cannot meet daily needs.

Absorption of iron from meat proteins is more efficient than from plant foods such as rice, maize, black beans, soybeans and wheat, though both are valuable. Tannins (found in tea), calcium, polyphenols, and phytates (found in legumes and whole grains) can decrease iron absorption, so it’s important to include foods that enhance iron absorption when daily iron intake is less than recommended.

Iron intake is negatively influenced by low-nutrient-density foods, which are high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals. Sugar-sweetened sodas and most desserts are examples of low-nutrient-density foods, as are snack foods such as potato chips. For many Americans, especially adolescents between the ages of  8 and 18, low-nutrient-density foods contribute almost 30 percent of daily caloric intake, with sweeteners and desserts jointly accounting for almost 25 percent of caloric intake. Those adults and adolescents who consume fewer low-nutrient-density foods are more likely to consume recommended amounts of iron.

Signs of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Feeling tired and weak
  • Decreased work and school performance
  • Slow cognitive and social development during childhood
  • Difficulty maintaining body temperature
  • Decreased immune function, which increases susceptibility to infection

Iron deficiency is uncommon among adult men and postmenopausal women. These individuals should only take iron supplements when prescribed by a physician because of their greater risk of iron overload. Iron overload is a condition in which excess iron is found in the blood and in organs such as the liver and heart. Men and women who engage in regular, intense exercise such as jogging, competitive swimming, and cycling and have marginal or inadequate iron status need to pay closer attention to iron retention. Vegetarians also need to remain aware of their iron intake.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

10 Tips to Keep Your Bones and Joints Healthy

As the summer comes to an end and the weather starts to cool, we find ourselves indoors more often. For some, that means less physical activity. For others, it’s a call to get back to the gym before the holidays arrive. Any change in activity makes us more susceptible to joint- and bone-related issues. Here are 10 tips for preventing damage, reducing pain, and improving your general quality of life and health.

Exercise to protect and strengthen your joints. Overall, by strengthening muscles and aiding in weight loss, exercise can reduce the strain on joints. Squats and lunges, as well as certain exercises with weights, can help strengthen quadriceps and reduce the pressure on your knees. Weight-bearing exercise such as walking also helps maintain bone density, no matter what your age. However, note that running and other high-intensity exercise can damage joints and ligaments, leading to inflammation, pain and, eventually, arthritis.

Stretch and warm up prior to exercising. Our bodies need to be warmed up in order to work properly and avoid excess injuries. This allows our tendons to flex and become more supple, helps the muscles to loosen up and work better, and gets the blood flowing through our body. Bodybuilding and weight lifting-related joint pain problems can be caused by tendonitis, an inflammation or irritation of the tendons. This type of joint pain can be reduced or eliminated by stretching and warming up tendons before working them too hard. This makes them more flexible and able to handle the added weight or exercise loads we put on them.

Change exercises. Both avid and occasional exercisers should consider changing the type of exercise we do. Impact-style exercising, such as step aerobics or kick boxing, is harder on our joints than exercises such as yoga and water-based workouts.

Don’t over-exercise. Regardless of the type of exercise we do, or how heavy the workout, our bodies need time to repair. Someone who does hours of intense exercising daily will have more problems with chronic joint pain than someone who allows their body to recuperate. Our muscles, tendons and ligaments all need time to rest and repair after a hard workout. That’s what causes them to strengthen over time.

Lose weight. Extra body weight creates strain on our joints, particularly the knee joints. Losing as little as 10 pounds of body weight can help reduce pain, and improves breathing and circulation.

Understand the value of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 acids are primarily found in fatty fish and some nuts and seeds, such as flaxseeds. Omega-6 acids are found in many vegetables, such as corn and corn oil. While the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3 fatty acids (which include fish oil supplements) is well known, less known is the fact that your intake of these fats can affect both bone formation and the rate at which bone is broken down. It’s important to consume both varieties, though consuming more omega-3 fatty acids improves bone mineral density, particularly important for good hip health. Eating a fatty fish like salmon twice a week is recommended, and many physicians suggest fish oil supplements.

Get your D. Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium and maintain enough calcium and phosphate in our blood so it doesn’t get pulled out of bone. It also enables bone growth and the breaking down and building up of bone. Low levels of vitamin D contribute to osteoporosis and a condition called osteomalacia, which produces an aching pain in our bones as the bone weakens. Low vitamin D also causes muscle weakness, which can lead to falls and fractures as we age. The best source of D is sunlight, but it’s nearly impossible to get enough in the fall and winter, or if we’re using sunscreen. That’s why supplements are helpful. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends a daily level of vitamin D to 600 international units (IUs) for anyone up to age 71 years old, including children, and as much as 800 IUs for those 71 and older. As with all medicines or supplements, consult with your physician or nutritionist to ensure the best regimen for your personal wellness needs.

Evaluate your shoes. Proper footwear is important for bone and joint health. Women who wear high-heeled shoes have seven to 10 times greater chance of developing joint pain and problems. It’s a good idea to vary the heel height of the shoes we wear. For those who like high heels, heels lower than three inches are best for bone and joint health. It’s also important that all shoes, including tennis and athletic shoes, fit properly. Toes need room and there should be good arch support. Some sort of cushion, especially under the ball and heel areas of our feet, also is recommended.

Change positions. Sitting or standing all day, day after day, can cause joint pain. We need to vary our routines to give both our bodies and joints variety and rest periods. Getting up and moving around is helpful to break up a routine and keep our bodies in shape.

Stop smoking. People who smoke tend to have lower bone density and higher risk of fractures than those who don’t, possibly related to lower calcium absorption and the production of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone which affect bone growth and strength.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

A Customized Wellness Plan Can Fit Your Culture, Size, and Budget

As companies become savvier about the benefits of employee health and wellness programs, many are turning to their health benefits providers, insurance companies, or to “off-the-shelf” wellness plans that they can adopt or model in determining what works best for their own organization. But what if you’re a really small company, say three or four people, or you and your staff work from home or other remote locations? While many formal wellness programs are designed for larger companies, small employers still can embrace a personalized wellness effort that recognizes the value in planning and rewarding healthy behaviors, without spending a bundle or struggling with programs designed with economy of scale in mind.

Most health benefits providers offer some type of wellness program or assistance. These typically include access to online information, a health assessment, smoking cessation plans, weight-loss options, and fitness center discounts. CBIA Health Connections employers can join Healthy Connections, CBIA’s wellness program, for free and use all the tools. But they also have access to many of the individual insurance carrier wellness benefits.

Additionally, employers can supplement these efforts by setting up their own customized wellness-support plan that would benefit its staff’s health and wellness. For instance, employers can contribute a set dollar amount each employee can use per year to help defray the costs of health- and wellness-related expenses such as fitness club or gym membership, physiotherapy, nutritional consultations, home workout equipment, registration costs for athletic team participation, and more.

The result is an all-encompassing plan tailored to the unique needs of your staff.

Employers also can sponsor their employees in individual or team charity events like organized walks, runs, tournaments, bike rides, and healthy activities of personal interest to each employee.

Selecting and supporting a fundraising event as a team is another good way to build teamwork, morale, and camaraderie.  And the more you can build in family activities, the better – it improves and strengthens home and work bonds.

There are a number of other practical ideas you can consider implementing that are wellness related, from keeping a fully equipped kitchen on your premises, to more flexible hours that make it easier for staff to walk, jog or exercise during the work day. You can add a basketball hoop or volleyball net on your property and even challenge neighboring companies to compete, purchase healthy lunches for team meetings, share pot luck meals and healthy recipes, and encourage your staff to talk to one another and with wellness experts about building individual plans that match their interest, goals, and time.

However you do it, and no matter the size of your organization, nurturing a positive work environment that recognizes, celebrates, and rewards healthy living, teamwork, and community spirit will prove beneficial to you, your employees, and your customers.

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To reap the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!