Keeping Your Brain Sharp
May 28, 2014
People with HIV are at higher risk for the brain slowdown everyone experiences as they age. But there are plenty of ways to fight it and keep your mind nimble!
Few have done as much to highlight the risk of HIV in the over-50 population than Jane Fowler, 78. Ever since the journalist and grandma found out in 1991 that she was HIV-positive from unprotected sex with a man she'd been dating after her divorce, she's been a tireless speaker and advocate for the importance of HIV awareness and testing in older folks. "When I decided to be public about my HIV, my life changed," she says. "I'm passionate about not seeing more infections in older people whose doctors think they don't have to talk to them about safe sex."
Fowler's still on the speaking circuit. But she feels her work has gotten harder in recent years because she's not as sharp as she used to be. (She sure sounded sharp over the phone!) "I feel like my powers of hearing, speaking, and thinking things through are weakening," she says. "I can feel myself aging."
Even if you're in your 50s or 60s, you may identify with Fowler, and with good reason: In recent years, researchers have discovered that HIV seems to play a role in "aging" the brain faster than it ages in HIV-negative folks. That could be because some HIV med combinations can't penetrate the barrier that encases our brain, so HIV is replicating in that area, or it could be because HIV heightens inflammation, which takes its toll throughout the body, including the brain. Either way, it can mean that you may experience certain aspects of brain slowdown -- such as spotty memory, grasping for words, or taking longer to complete tasks -- faster than your HIV-free peers.
But hold on! There's lots you can do keep your brain as healthy and sharp as possible. Here are a few:
Get help to kick heavy drinking and/or drugs. Studies have shown that the mix of HIV, aging, and heavy drinking or drug use (especially cocaine and crystal meth) are lethal to the brain, and can lead to long-term damages. If you are drinking heavily or doing drugs, reach out for help. Your mind will thank you later. As it will for quitting smoking, too! Carcinogens aren't exactly brain sharpeners.
Rule out other causes. Talk to your doctor if you're having a hard time with brain function. Perhaps it's due to a lack of certain nutrients or depression.
Keep your brain connected and active. A job that brings you pleasure, volunteering, activism, socializing with friends and family, travel, writing, reading, playing board or card games -- they're all things that keep the mind alive. So does prayer and meditation -- research shows it! So ask yourself where you're lacking among these things and then reach out to put more of them in your life!
"I take my fish oil and calcium," Jane says. "Plus, I read constantly. I'm on the board of my local library. And I love magazines -- Time, People, EW, Vanity Fair. I love keeping up with what's going on in the world."
This article was provided by Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
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