’40 per cent of risk factors for dementia are modifiable,’ writes Baycrest psychologist Dr. Susan Vandermorris
The impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s older adult community has been devastating. Between the end of March 2020 and mid-May 2021, seniors (65 and over) accounted for 93 per cent of all COVID-19 deaths and two-thirds of excess deaths. Let that sink in for a moment.
It is imperative to reflect on what has been revealed to us. Let us consider how we can best use the lessons we continue to learn during this disturbing time in human history and move toward a collective healing.
Amid grief and heartbreak, Canadians also mourn a way of living — our homes remain offices and classrooms, and time with friends is limited to screen time, as we collectively seclude ourselves from the outside world.
A recent survey for Baycrest’s The Brain Project paints a picture of both struggle and optimism for Canadians of all ages during this time — especially our young adults. Three quarters of young Canadians (ages 18 to 34) feel a lack of mental stimulation during lockdowns — more than any other age group. Young Canadians are also more forgetful and bored during lockdown and isolation, and feel a decline in their emotional health.
With every challenge comes an opportunity. To that end, it is comforting to also learn that this young adult cohort (the one most affected in terms of brain health) is also the most likely group to engage in activities that sharpen the brain and keep it healthy. They explore creative outlets such as dance, art, language, music and writing. This type of activity is integral to supporting positive mental, emotional and spiritual states for all ages.
These findings serve as a wake-up call for young adults to get a head start on brain health; factors such as chronic stress and lack of mental stimulation are key contributors to brain decline.
Most people are not aware that the progression of diseases that cause dementia often begins before any symptoms start to show. In many cases, the brain starts to fast-track these illnesses decades before initial memory loss symptoms appear.
Throughout our lifetime, we have the opportunity to protect our brain’s resilience and there is a lot we can do to protect our brain health. In fact, research suggests that up to 40 per cent of risk factors for dementia are modifiable.
Promoting a healthy lifestyle for every age group extends far beyond diet and exercise and includes creative endeavours. Art, new languages, dance, and music reduce stress, enhance well-being and can challenge the brain to find new neural pathways.
There is no limit to what creativity can look like for everyone. For some, it’s learning a song on the piano, storytelling or engaging in intergenerational experiences. When it is deemed safe to do so by public health, we can connect face-to-face with friends and family. Group activities — such as game nights or painting parties — are a great way to maintain cognitive abilities while spending quality time with loved ones.
The arts can also help maintain a strong sense of self, culture, and connection to community. Baycrest research finds that engagement in such activities improves physical and emotional health. “Research shows that arts-based recreation has positive health outcomes, such as enhanced well-being and a reduced risk of dementia,” says Dr. Kelly Murphy, psychologist at Baycrest and co-creator of ArtOnTheBrain.
Whether it is ten minutes of journaling before bed or sketching a portrait on weekends, small but attainable activities can bolster brain health in the future. Making a habit of engaging in creative activities is an investment that involves virtually no risk and provides lifelong benefits.
The pandemic and its isolation have been painful for all. But this is a watershed moment. Investing in research will provide a springboard to a better understanding and lead the way to better brain health and aging.
Dr. Susan Vandermorris is the lead psychologist in the Baycrest Memory and Aging Program.