Archive of ‘Brain Health’ category

The Aging Brain: What’s Normal and What’s Not?

In 2014, there were 46.2 million Americans over the age of 65, which represents about 14.5% of the U.S. population. By 2040, this number is expected to rise to over 81 million, and by 2060, almost 100 million. With this significant increase in the aging population comes a growing concern about the prevention and treatment of age-related diseases. One, if not the most, notable of these diseases is dementia, due to the impact it has not only on the person with the disease, but also to their spouses, children, and to the healthcare system as a whole.

By: Shannon Haragan, LPC

By: Shannon Haragan, LPC

How Do I Know if it’s Normal Aging or Early Signs of Dementia?

In the not-too-distant past, researchers believed that the brain only developed and built connections during our early years, after which, development stopped, and the rest of our lives were spent losing brain cells. Now we know that the brain can continue to generate cells and build connections throughout our life span–we call this neuroplasticity. If we keep our bodies and our minds engaged and active, we can have a healthy brain throughout our lifetime. Here is an example of truly healthy aging, at age 106, who got to dance with the President and the First Lady

Similar to any muscle in our body, however, we can apply the age-old “use it or lose it” principle to the brain, as well. As we age, we tend to naturally slow down both physically and mentally. We tend to engage less with things that are mentally and cognitively challenging. Our minds follow suit, and as a result, we may naturally experience memory lapses from time to time. So some memory loss is considered normal. But how much? What if you forget where you left your keys? Call your granddaughter by your sister’s name? Walk into a room and forget why you walked in there in the first place? Here are a few guidelines for what’s normal and what’s not:

             Normal Aging                      Signs of Dementia
Preserved independence in daily activitiesCritical dependence on others for key daily living activities
The individual is more concerned about alleged forgetfulness than close family members areClose family members are much more concerned about incidents of memory loss than the individual
The person complains of memory loss but can provide considerable detail regarding incidents of forgetfulnessThe person complains of memory problems only if specifically asked; cannot recall instances where memory loss was noticeable
Recent memory for important events, affairs, and conversations is not impairedRecent memory for events and ability to converse are both noticeably impaired
Occasional word-finding difficultiesFrequent word-finding pauses and substitutions
Person does not get lost in familiar territory; may have to pause momentarily to remember wayPerson gets lost in familiar territory while walking or driving; may take hours to return home
Individual operates common appliances even if unwilling to learn how to operate new devicesPerson cannot operate common appliances; unable to learn to operate even simple new appliances
No decline in interpersonal social skillsLoss of interest in social activities; socially inappropriate behaviors
Normal performance on mental status examinations, relative to the individual’s education and cultureBelow-normal performance on mental status examinations in ways not accounted for by educational or cultural factors


There are many different causes of dementia (Alzheimer’s is the most common), but the way the symptoms present is different for everybody. If you have a concern for yourself or a family member, talk with your primary care doctor or a neurologist. If you’re struggling with anxiety, worry or grief around a potential diagnosis, a therapist can be helpful. Though the funding is currently lacking compared to other diseases such as cancer and heart disease, important research is currently ongoing, and there is great hope for finding effective treatments to combat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in the not-too-distant future. For more information, check out the Alzheimer’s Association or more info about dementia.

Mind & Body: The Connection of Mental and Physical Health


Many people do not realize just how much our mental and physical health are directly connected. The food we eat, the exercise/activity that we do, and the amount of sleep we get can not only have a huge impact on our bodies, but can in turn, have an enormous impact on our minds and our mental health. Let’s break this down and look at a few key factors.

By: Angelica Beker, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Angelica Beker, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

Healthy body means a healthy mind.

#1) Nutrition:

For years we have heard that having a balanced, healthy diet means we have healthy hearts, decreased risk of diabetes, decreased risk of cancer, and more. However, nutrition plays an important role in brain health as well. Scientists have found that gut health has a direct impact on mental health and has been shown to decrease symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and other mental health concerns. Although altering one’s nutrition alone often will not completely rid an individual of their symptoms, a healthy diet can greatly help especially when combined with talk therapy. Think about this scenario for a moment: when you eat a cheeseburger, your blood sugar levels quickly spike, which creates a spike in insulin, leaving you initially satisfied. However, due to the fact that foods like this are quickly broken down and absorbed, your insulin levels quickly drop, and you feel the urge to eat again because your blood sugar is low again. When this happens, your cortisol levels (the stress hormone) spike as well. In the end, you are left hungry again, with higher stress hormone levels, which in turn can have a negative impact on your state of mind. However, healthier foods, such as fruits, veggies, lean proteins (like chicken), almonds, and more are nutrient dense, are slower to absorb, and leave your fuller longer. In addition, your body and your mind receive nutrients that you need to be healthier and have a clearer mind. A healthier, happier body makes for a healthier, happier mind and usually a happier mood as well.

5 Foods to Improve Mental Health
Mental Health Diet

#2) Exercise/Physical Activity:

This is an area that can also be a difficult one for many individuals. In the busy and hectic days of our lives, sometimes it is difficult to find time for exercise or physical activity. Yet, there are many benefits from exercise on one’s mental health. Exercise can decrease stress, which in turn can decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise produces endorphins, which can make us feel happier and more positive. Exercise can boost one’s self-confidence and self-esteem, helping us feel better about ourselves. Exercise can help with mental focus, clarity, brain power, and energy levels. Exercise has been found to help with controlling addictions as well. When your body is healthier and more relaxed, your state of mind reflects on that. What people forget is you don’t have to been an athlete, a regular runner, or weight-lifter. A simple 20 minute walk outside can automatically decrease stress. Finding what form of physical activity you like will help ensure that you do it more often. If you have friends, a significant other, or children, getting others involved can also lead to social interaction and bonding time, which can have a very positive effect on mental health. Starting small and working your way up is the way to go!

More Info on Mental Health Exercise

#3) Sleep:

Many people do not get enough sleep. However, sleep has so many benefits to our mental health. One important factor to consider with sleep is lack of sleep can raise our hormone levels which can affect mood and stress levels. Lack of sleep has been linked to mental health concerns such as depression, suicidal ideation, and more risk-taking behaviors. Like a car needs gas to run, your brain needs sleep to function properly. Without that, one can begin to experience many negative side effects, including worsening mental health.

Paying attention to the foods you eat, to the physical activity that you do, and to your sleep patterns can only benefit your positively. Your mental and physical health directly impact each other and having a healthy mind can help us in our daily lives in terms of relationships, work, self-esteem, and much more!

Caring for the Caregiver: An Introduction

Let’s start with a few sobering facts about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: 
By: Shannon Haragan, LPC-Intern Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

By: Shannon Haragan, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Lora Ferguson, LPC-S

— As I type these words, there are currently 5.1 million Americans living with dementia and 60-70% of those individuals have Alzheimer’s (the most common cause of dementia).

— Every 67 seconds, someone new develops the disease–and that’s just in our own country.

— By 2025 (that’s just ten years from now!), the overall number of Americans living with the disease is expected to jump 40%, to 7.1 million. By 2050, perhaps around the time you or someone you love turns 65, that number is projected to be nearly 14 million.

— For unknown reasons, two-thirds of these people are women.

— Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and it is also the ONLY cause of death in the top 10 that cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.

If you have a brain, you are at risk of developing the disease.

If anybody you love has a brain, you run an even higher risk of becoming a caregiver.

So here’s where the rubber hits the road. A couple of stats from

— Up to 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, and up to half of those caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

— Caring for persons with dementia reportedly impacts a person’s immune system for up to 3 years after their caregiving experience ends, thus increasing their chances of developing a chronic illness themselves.

Caregiving for someone diagnosed with dementia takes a significant toll, physically, mentally and emotionally. This is the first in a series written about the world of dementia caregiving, and ways that caregivers can cope with a variety of common issues, from the practical to the emotional to the existential. Though I will be focusing on dementia, primarily Alzheimer’s, much of this is applicable for caregivers for any chronic illness. The term caregiver certainly applies to those individuals living in the home and helping to provide ongoing daily care of their loved one (typically spouses or adult children), but it also refers to other family members and friends who spend time and energy invested in the health and well-being of the care receiver.


Acute illnesses are short-term, with available cures. Caregivers and families typically operate in a world of certainty, knowing their loved one’s health will ultimately improve. Chronic illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease, offer no cures. They are long-term, and are marked by unpredictability and a future negotiating change.


Generally speaking, there are three broad stages that all Alzheimer’s patients and their families go through: early, middle and late. Each stage brings its own set of changes and transitions, varying between periods of encountering new symptoms, behaviors and emotions, and adjusting to the “new normal.” Though much of the journey of caregiving involves components you can’t control, it is crucial to discover and focus on those parts you CAN control:

Change is external and generally involves things you CANNOT control, such as:

— Roles
— Situations
— Abilities
— Care needs
— Events

Transition is internal, and generally involves things you CAN control, such as:

— Emotions/feelings
— Thoughts/cognitions
— Attitudes
— Learning
— Acceptance

Future blogs will address how to transition well, and will offer practical solutions the changes that your family encounters. Ultimately, the goal of the Caring for the Caregiver blog series is to learn how to better take care of YOU. By making yourself a priority, you will ultimately be able to better care for your loved one. Like the flight attendants tell us, we must first put the oxygen masks on ourselves before helping to put the oxygen masks on those we care for.

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