AARP report: 6 Pillars of Brain Health – lifestyle changes and community policies

Published in RINewstoday on April 4, 2022

The Washington, DC-based AARP releases its latest Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) report citing strong scientific evidence that behavior changes and lifestyle habits can positively impact one’s brain health – yet many adults struggle to implement such simple changes.

In a new report released last month, “How to Sustain Brain Healthy Behaviors: Applying Lessons of Public Health and Science to Drive Change,” GCBH outlines how individuals age 50 and over, communities, and policymakers can all take steps to support brain health.

The World Health Organization predicts that the number of people living with dementia is expected to grow to 82 million by 2030 and skyrocketing to 152 million by 2050. The GCBH report notes to lower this expected trajectory it will take “effective behavior and cultural changes, initiated and driven by all the pertinent actors working in concert at all levels of society.”

The 38-page report and its recommendations are based on a review of the current state of science and the consensus of 20 experts from across the world in an array of disciplines, notes the report. GCBH is an independent collaboration of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts from all over the world who are working in the area of brain health related to human cognition to promote brain health.

GCBH’s 38-page report, released March 15, 2022, provides tips to support brain-healthy behavior. Over the past six years, the GCBH has issued reports on broad topics taking a look at whether adults’ behavior and lifestyle style habits could affect their brain health as they grow older.

“While we encourage people to make good decisions, the GCBH recognizes that an effective strategy to enhance brain health must be framed broadly, and that individual choices are made in a larger social and environmental context… Simply putting research findings forward and expecting people to change their behaviors and sustain healthy lifestyles accordingly is unrealistic,” say the report’s authors. 

Calls for Supporting Positive Brain Health

In the latest GCBH report, the authors share what they have learned about how to persuade and motivate people to maintain brain-healthy lifestyles, and how community policies can be shaped to promote this vital goal. 

“We know what works to support brain health – this report focuses on how to make that happen,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, GCBH’s Executive Director. “Our experts have identified specific, practical tips to help older adults, communities and policymakers support the habits that are good for brain health. We show that change is possible, and why supporting brain health for an aging population makes good health and economic sense for communities and society as well as individuals,” Lock says.

“We describe why implementing programs designed to promote brain health for older adults makes good health and economic sense for communities and societies as well as individuals. GCBH experts advise individuals to set specific goals, be realistic about what they choose, and approach their goals step by step,” says the report’s authors. 

“We encourage community-based organizations to create opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching. And we urge policymakers to raise public awareness that people can take steps to help themselves. These and many other recommendations along with a framework for achieving change for individuals, community organizations and policymakers are provided in the final report approved by the GCBH Governance Committee,” they add. 

The GCBH report also calls for addressing the disparities in health and access to care that undermine the cognitive well-being of underserved communities including many African Americans and Hispanics.

Hearing loss, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression are among the health issues that may be linked to cognitive decline and should be properly managed with access to health care.

The Six Pillars of Brain Health

After a careful analysis of scientific findings, GCBH’s report notes that “evidence continues to mount” that people may be able to lower their risks for cognitive decline by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors, referred to as the six pillars of brain health.

Specifically put:

“Be social” and continue to maintain and expand your social network.  Keep tabs on family and friends and don’t isolate yourself from others. 

  • Find new interests and hobbies to “engage your brain” and to stimulate your thinking. 
  • Meditate, relax, and maintain a consistent schedule to “manage stress.”
  • Don’t forget the importance of “ongoing” exercise” and schedule at least 2.5 hours of moderate to vigorous exercise a week.  
  • Achieve “restorative sleep” by at least getting 7-8 ours of restful sleep daily.
  • Finally, “eat right” by choosing a nutritious, heart healthy diet to limit high blood pressure, of fish, poultry, nuts, low-fat dairy, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, and vegetable oils. 

The GCBH recommendations urge people to avoid smoking and not drink alcohol.  But if you drink, limit alcohol to more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.

The Brain-Heart Connection is examined in GCBH’s report.  Hypertension is a serious risk to brain health that can lead to stroke, mild cognitive impairment, or dementia. With knowledge of this, the report notes that people can lower blood pressure by increasing physical activity and reduce overeating, excess drinking, smoking and even reducing sodium (salt) intake.

The GCBH report provides simple, easily obtainable steps to make successful behavioral changes to improve brain health.  Specifically, people can:

Set a goal, identify a specific action you want to take on.

Be thoughtful and realistic about the goals you choose.

Find something that is fun and choose what is enjoyable for you.

Re-purpose some of your free time.

Rethink your environment to reduce the temptations and encourage better choices.

Celebrate the wins.

Learn from the setbacks.

Involve friends and family with common goals to reinforce healthy choices; and

Pick a good start time. 

While brain health behavior changes can be achieved by individuals, these changes require the support health care providers, employers, and community organizations.  Health care providers can help their patients improve their lifestyle habits and make healthy choices to reduce risks and alleviate the symptoms of disease. Employers can promote healthy behaviors too by creating healthier work environments, offering wellness initiatives, health screenings, immunizations, supporting healthy sleep by minimizing shift work, not requiring employees to respond to emails 24/7 and respecting vacations and breaktimes.  These all can promote better brain and mental health, says the GCBH report.

Mission-driven organizations, like AARP, the Arthritis Foundation, and the Heart Association, can also provide individuals with needed information and tools to access their own wellness and motivate a person to make positive behavior changes.

Finally, policymakers can set goals to improve the public’s brain health with a focus on building equity, fighting the sigma of dementia, and implementing best practice to improve brain health from around the world. They can also become aware of how public policies in other areas, such as the built environment, nutrition, and education, can have a lifelong impact on brain health. Some specific examples of successful public health policies include seat-belt laws and smoking cessation requirements.

“A chasm remains between what researchers are discovering about brain health and how little this knowledge has been applied for the public good. Progress will require the combined actions of individuals and communities, reinforced by public policies that facilitate healthy lifestyles,” says the report’s authors. “By applying lessons of public health and science, we can improve brain health for the benefit of individuals, communities and countries around the world,” they say, noting that this report lays out the steps needed to achieve this goal.

The full report on “How to Sustain Brain Healthy Behaviors” is available by going to https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/health/brain_health/2022-03/gcbh-behavior-change-report-english.doi.10.26419-2Fpia.00106.001.pdf.

To obtain all of the GCBH’s past reports on brain health, go to https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/resource-library/.

To see how staying socially active impacts brain health, go to https://thriveglobal.com/stories/spumoni-s-where-everybody-knows-your-name-study-says-being-socially-active-may-improve-cognitive-functioning-2/

With Thanksgiving approaching, beat the Holiday Blues

Published on November 22, 2021 in RINewsToday

Just a year ago, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transformed the way we celebrated the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Normally a personal gathering day with family and close friends, the cooler weather pushed people inside where the virus more easily spreads, forcing families to meet on Zoom for turkey dinner and catching up.

Today, COVID-19 vaccines have made it safer to bring families together to this annual holiday gathering. With the nation’s borders now open and 195 million Americans fully vaccinated and new travel guidelines in place, AAA predicts more than 53.4 million people are expected to travel to reunite with their loved ones, the highest single-year increase since 2005.

But like previous Thanksgiving celebrations, not every family gathering will be as serene as the one portrayed in Noman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom from Want painting that appeared in the March 6, 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Thoughts of attending the upcoming gathering might just tear open psychological wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension, and even depression.

Increased family demands and obligations that begin before Thanksgiving and continue through Christmas, and finally New Year’s Eve, can bring about the holiday blues, sad feelings specific to the holiday season. While there is no formal diagnosis of the holiday blues, these feelings are quite real for some people. Usually, it is felt by people who are going through the first holiday after a loss of a significant person in their life or a bad childhood memory from past the holidays. 

Holiday stresses brought about by last minute shopping for gifts, baking and cooking, cleaning and hosting parties, and even having unrealistic expectations can trigger depression. It can also bring about a feeling of malaise, tiredness, headaches, excessive drinking and overeating and even difficulty in sleeping.

COVID-19 and the Holiday Blues

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there was less stress because people were not doing face-to-face gatherings, says Elaine Rodino, Ph.D., psychologist in private practice for over 41 years in California and Pennsylvania. “But it still came up because they were worried about Uncle Morrie showing up on Zoom,” she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic is overshadowing this year’s holiday season yet again, says Rodino, who is former president of the American Psychological Associations’ Division 46 (Society for Media Psychology & Technology), and Division 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice), the Los Angles County Association, and the Central Pennsylvania Psychological Association.

“There’s plenty of mitigating news this year about inflation and how prices are higher on almost all items including Thanksgiving Day dinner. People having financial issues this year can let themselves feel better by realizing that they are not alone. Many people are suffering economically through no fault of their own,” Rodino says.

“We’ve been experiencing many new ways of having to think about things,” adds Rodino, urging people to “be flexible and find new ways to enjoy life with less dependence on material things.”

According to Rodino, preplanning your visit can be the best way to reduce holiday blues. “Give thought to what you’re expecting and determine if your expectations are valid or just wishful thinking. Then decide to literally “make the best of it” by focusing on the good things and the good reasons why you’re making this visit,” she advises.

Putting the Kibosh on Hot Topics at Dinner

What can you do to steer away from heated political debates or sensitive issues including “why aren’t you vaccinated?”

Stressful situations at Thanksgiving gatherings can be reduced if you give thought to what to expect in visiting with your relatives. “Plan ahead on how you’re going to avoid being taken down a rabbit hole of controversy. How are you are going to pivot away from conversations when you see them going in a dangerous direction?”  

Rodino adds, “Remember who they are and how they think. Since it’s only a limited time visit, try to remain neutral. Don’t try to change anyone’s thinking. Things usually go badly when people try to convince others to think the way they do. That never goes well.”

You can plan ahead about how you will handle these conversations. “Do not fight!  There will be no winner. Talk about sports, the weather (not climate change), how delicious the food is, even how cute the dog is,” recommends Rodino.

“It’s best to accept that everyone has their own opinions (even if some seem very bizarre). Just think to yourself that you will soon be going back to your own home. You do not need to try to convince anyone about anything,” adds Rodino.

“When feeling stress, it’s important to realize that it’s time limited. Take care of yourself, whether it’s exercising, taking a warm bath, or just taking a break and reading a book. “There needs to be just some time that you just check out from the holiday stress part,” she says.

The holiday blues should begin to fade away by the first couple of weeks in January, notes Rodino. “So, if people are still feeling that, like say the second, third week of January, then they really should talk with a psychologist, because there could be issues that really need to be sorted out and processed,” she says.

With the ongoing pandemic we need to create new ways of doing things, says Rodino, noting that “People need to become creative and think up new ways to celebrate.”

As to compiling other strategies to cope with the holiday blues, Rodino suggests Googling ideas for surviving the pandemic holidays. “There’s something there for everyone,” she says.

Depression and Suicidal Thoughts

During this time of year, some may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts. Losses of all types can weigh heavily on anyone, but loss from COVID-19 has tragically impacted on so many and we can now add the pandemic to the challenges many face along with unemployment, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feeling isolated from others. Sometimes, you aren’t ready for professional help from a doctor or mental health professional. Sometimes, you just need someone to talk to.

Think about calling The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to listening to those in need through its nonjudgment befriending hotline/listening line program serving all of the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people no matter the caller’s issues or status. “You don’t need insurance, you don’t need to be in crisis, you don’t need to be in professional care, you don’t need a diagnosis to call. Most importantly, conversations are free, confidential and anonymous.

And, Panichas notes, for those in professional care, Samaritan volunteers can  be there to listen when family, friends and professionals are not available.

Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much-needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. Caregiving is both rewarding but most caregivers don’t want to talk about the stress to family and friends. Caregivers don’t want to be a bother to anyone. Caregivers need to know, however, that they are never a bother to our Listening line volunteers.

This year, The Samaritans partnered with Rhode Island Meals on Wheels to share information about the availability of the Listening Line services to homebound seniors. Family members are encouraged to share The Samaritans telephone number with seniors who are family members living alone, or even for those seniors living in facilities – most have private phones and they can call, too.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community, or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

Suicide prevention education is still a very important feature of the agency’s mission. For persons in need of more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

Holiday giving to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island is always welcomed. Donations can be made online at its website or by mail to: The Samaritans of Rhode Island, P.O. Box 9086, Providence Rhode Island 02940.

Emergency? Call 911. Need to talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

We can prevent “suicide by bridge”

Published in RINewsToday on July 26, 2021

As the General Assembly goes into recess until the fall, Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Warwick) sees H-5053, to require safety barriers or netting on the three bridges that connect Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands to the mainland of Rhode Island, as in hiatus. The bill in House Corporations never came out of committee but that isn’t stopping the House sponsor from working to see the legislative intent fulfilled. 

According to Solomon, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority currently has a number of suicide prevention measures in place, including a smart surveillance system allowing authorities to act quickly, but virtually no way to physically deter a determined jumper. The Rhode Island Samaritans also has signs posted at the bridge entrances with information to access RI’s 911 system for emergencies or The Samaritans one to one hotline, where individuals can speak to someone. 

But determined people do jump, Solomon notes, explaining the need for passage of H-5053.

“Too many people have committed suicide on those bridges in the last decade,” said Representative Solomon in a statement released when the bill was introduced last January. “Due to technological advances, there are various types of barriers and netting available to increase safety without hindering access for routine inspection and maintenance of the bridges,” he said.

“It’s not only a serious problem, but an alarmingly frequent one,” said Solomon explaining why he introduced his bill. “Last year alone, the Portsmouth Police responded to the Mount Hope Bridge 36 times. And the cost of suicide goes far beyond the individual. It affects friends, families, first responders and health care professionals. Those who survive the fall all say the same thing: they feel instant regret the moment their feet leave the railing.”

Sen. Louis P. DiPalma’s (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, Little Compton), companion measure, S-117 met the same fate by not being voted out of the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee.  

If the General Assembly had passed these bills during this legislative session, Rhode Island would have taken a leadership position and joined other states such as New York, California and Florida and countries around the world that have moved to put physical safety barriers on the bridges to deter suicides. 

  • Barrier under construction in Florida
  • No barriers in Rhode Island

Raising the Visibility of the Need for Physical Barriers

Melissa Cotta of Tiverton and Bryan Ganley of Bristol founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing. Their Facebook page says its mission is to “raise suicide awareness & prevention, increase cycling & pedestrian safety on our bridges & offer support to all the survivors of those lost including families and loved ones, witnesses, first responders and our entire community. Our top goals include preventing bridge suicides by advocating for restricting easy access to means of suicide in general & installation of bridge safety barriers.”

According to Cotta, who witnessed a suicide from the Mount Hope Bridge, and Ganley, a 40-year Samaritan volunteer and survivor of suicide by loved ones and friends, last year COVID-19 derailed the passage of legislation introduced by Solomon and DiPalma to bring suicide prevention barriers to Rhode Island’s bridges. This year, with legislation reintroduced, they turned to social media and Facebook to urge Rhode Islanders to call for lawmakers to install physical barriers on the state’s unprotected bridges.

“The time is now! Take the means for suicide away!” – they say. We don’t want to lose any more people to these bridges,” referring to suicides on the Jamestown-Verrazzano, Claiborne Pell, Mt. Hope and Sakonnet River Bridges.

Army Corp of Engineers say barriers work on Cape Cod’s Bridges

According to a 1983 memorandum “Information Awards” for the “Installation of Suicide Deterrent Fencing” on the Bourne & Sagamore Highway Bridges at the Cape Cod Canal barriers were installed at the request of The Samaritans of Cape Cod, led by Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens and a driving force in the creation of The Samaritans in Boston, on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island.

According to additional information provided by the Army Corp of Engineers, managers of the Cape Cod Canal and the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges “during a 28-year period after the fencing was installed, between 1984 and 2012, a total of 7 persons committed suicide from the bridges. A far lower rate of incidence than what was recorded for the years before the fencing was installed as part of the major rehabilitation project started in 1979.”

From 2013-April 2021, the Army Corps is aware of “two attempts that were prevented thanks to the quick actions of state and local law enforcement officers. The presence of fencing may not only deter attempts from occurring, but it can also delay an attempt long enough to give law enforcement a chance to successfully respond to an incident when one does occur. “(Note: This is not conclusive information as reports may have gone to state or local police.)

“In RI, from 2009-2018, we know of at least 33 deaths from our bridges and from November 2020 to July 2, 2021, we are aware of at least 8 persons lost from the bridges,” say Cotta and Ganley.  

“Many suicides can’t be predicted or prevented, but suicides from bridges is something we can prevent with the installation of Suicide Prevention Barriers on our state’s three major bridges,” noted Ganley in written testimony to support H 5053. 

Ganley added: “As a Hotline/Listening volunteer, we are trained to first remove the means of suicide.  A bridge with 135’ drop and only a 3’ rail, is like handing a suicidal person a loaded gun.  These bridges are all loaded guns.  We need to take away the gun.”

The Final Push…

With the Rhode Island General Assembly in recess, just days ago ABC 6 reported that Solomon and DiPalma are still seeking ways to fund the installation of barriers on Rhode Island bridges to prevent suicide.  Solomon tells ABC6 in a statement: 

“Although the General Assembly is currently in recess, we are still working behind the scenes with the RI Bridge and Turnpike Authority and the RI Department of Transportation on moving things forward. With one-time federal funding becoming available in the federal infrastructure bill, it is our hope that some of the funding can be allocated to both the design and implementation of suicide prevention barriers or netting. 

Although we are moving in the right direction this is not a time to become complacent. Melissa Cotta and Bryan Ganley have done an outstanding job working on this from day one. They are continuing to raise awareness on this issue and show that it is a priority in Rhode Island. Rhode Island would not be the first state to implement these barriers. Those states that do have barriers show how effective they are. I will continue to push for this legislation with the intent of getting it passed when we reconvene this fall.”

Sign the Petition…

“The petition for safety/suicide prevention barriers is intended to increase awareness of this issue and show residents of Rhode Island, as well as the surrounding areas that use our bridges all the time are in support of these barriers,” says Cotta.

The public’s call for installing safety/suicide prevent barriers has gained a powerful advocate.  House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick), states “I admire Representative Solomon’s passion and commitment to this issue. We will continue to work with him.”

At press time, 2,630 have signed Cotta and Ganley’s petition to add barriers to Rhode Island’s unprotected bridges.  They hope to add thousands more to send a message to the Congressional Delegation, the Governor and the General Assembly to act to add physical barriers to Mount Hope, Pell, Jamestown and Sakonnet Bridges. To view and sign this petition, go to tinyurl.com/ribridgingthegap

Suicide emergency? Call 911. Need to Talk? Call The Samaritans of Rhode Island at 401.272.4044 or 1.800.365.4044. Learn more at http://www.samaritansri.org