Brain Health Basics

Have you ever walked into a room and stood there wondering why you went in there in the first place? Or maybe you find that you’re struggling with forgetting the names of new people that you meet? I know I’ve been there. Well, frankly, that’s a way of life for me and quite normal! But as we age, those normal bouts of forgetfulness can cause us to wonder if we’re experiencing signs of a greater problem. Do I have dementia? It’s not unreasonable to be concerned about cognitive health. As a matter of fact, cognitive health is really something we should be thinking about long before concerns of dementia and cognitive impairment crop up. Join me this week as I chat with Dr. Andrea Wilkinson all about brain health. Listen to episode 32 here or keep scrolling to read the full transcript.

This episode is jam-packed with great information and is definitely one you’ll want to listen to and share with others. Though Sage Aging focuses on older adults, the information in this episode will benefit people of any age, and any stage of life!

My Guest

My guest for this episode is Dr. Andrea Wilkinson. Andrea has a Ph.D. in psychology with a specialization in cognitive aging. She’s the co-founder of BrainShape, an online community for adults who want to enhance their mental and physical vibrancy as they age. Dr. Andrea is also the host of the BrainShape podcast, a weekly show that covers the latest brain health research and shares interviews with experts in the field of Health and Aging. For Dr. Andrea’s complete bio and connection points, be sure to take a look at her website (in the links section below).

4 Pillars of Brain Health

Caring for your brain entails more than cognitive exercise. While brain games and memory exercises can be helpful to some degree, true brain health requires a total body approach. Dr. Andrea explained the following four pillars of health and how they contribute to brain health.

  1. Physical Fitness
  2. Food & Nutrition
  3. Socialization
  4. Mental Considerations (sleep, managing stress, challenging your mind)
Thanks for listening!

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Brain Health Basics

Recorded 11/9 /2020


Host: Liz Craven Guest: Dr. Andrea Wilkinson

Liz Craven  00:00

Thank you for listening to the sage aging podcast. This episode is brought to you by Polk ElderCare guide, your guide to all things senior care and resources available in both English and Spanish. You can find the guide at

Liz Craven  00:26

Welcome to the Sage Aging podcast. I’m your host, Liz Craven. The mission of Sage Aging is to help you connect to information and resources that will empower you to master the aging and caregiving journey. Weekly, I’ll bring you great conversations with industry professionals and others to shed some light on topics of aging, and to empower you to take charge of your journey. So grab a cup of coffee, or maybe a cool glass of lemonade, and sit back and relax as we chat. Are you ready? Hit subscribe now and let’s get started.

Liz Craven  01:04

Hello, and welcome to Episode 32 of the Sage Aging podcast. I want to give a big shout out to the fabulous caregivers who are listening. As you know, November is National Family Caregivers Month and it’s a great opportunity for us to honor you for all that you do. And I also want to let you know that we see you keep up the good work and thank you for what you do. Have you ever walked into a room and stood there wondering why you went in there in the first place? Or maybe you find that you’re struggling with forgetting the names of new people that you meet? I know I’ve been there. Well, frankly, that’s a way of life for me and quite normal, but as we age, those normal bouts of forgetfulness can cause us to wonder if we’re experiencing signs of a greater problem. Do I have dementia? It’s not unreasonable to be concerned about cognitive health. As a matter of fact, cognitive health is really something we should be thinking about. Long before concerns of dementia and cognitive impairment crop up. exercising our brains is an important part of overall health. We eat well and exercise to keep our bodies healthy. And in the same way we need to care for our cognitive health too. My guest today is Dr. Andrea Wilkinson. Andrea has a PhD in psychology with a specialization in cognitive aging. She’s the co-founder of brain shape an online community for adults who want to enhance their mental and physical vibrancy as they age. Dr. Andrea is also the host of the brain shape podcast, a weekly show that covers the latest brain health research and shares interviews with experts in the field of Health and Aging. For Dr. Andrea’s complete bio and connection points, be sure to take a look at the show notes for this episode. Or you can check the blog post for Episode 32 at Sage Welcome to the show. Dr. Andrea, thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  03:07

Hi, Liz, thank you so much for having me.

Liz Craven  03:11

I am so excited to talk about this. This is an important topic. I think a lot of people wait until much later in life to think about their brain health. But truly, it’s something we should all be thinking about all of the time. But before we get started, I would love it if you just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  03:31

Yes, that’s wonderful. Well, I absolutely agree we need to be thinking about brain health long before we see any outward symptoms of decline. And that’s because when we see outward symptoms of decline, that means that a lot of substantial changes have already taken place. And so that’s why it’s so important that we maintain our brain health throughout our lives. So a little bit about me, I am Canadian, born and raised. And I’ve been studying cognitive aging, and how our mental functions change as we get older since the early 2000s. So I really got interested in cognition and mental functioning. When I was an undergraduate student at McMaster University. I started working in some long-term care homes as part of the educational component of the courses I was taking and it was being exposed to these, sort of, end stages of dementia. So if someone’s living in a long term care home and a locked dementia ward, they’re obviously very far progressed into that disease. So I was seeing sort of the end stages of what cognitive impairment looked like. And it was, of course, shocking and sad and it really sort of pulled at my heartstrings because I just felt so much for these individuals. who were living in these long term care homes with severe state stages of dementia? But it was about how can we begin to have meaningful connections with these individuals, even though they have severe levels of cognitive impairment because it’s about having meaning in your dialog without, sort of, pinching on it having current day value. And that was really the sort of seedling that got planted in when I saw this late stage dimension, and the end stages of what could happen with cognitive impairment, it really made me start to think about if that’s the end stage, that’s the worst-case scenario, what can we do as we get older to help protect our brains and preserve our brain health. And I started doing research in my graduate school programs when I was getting my master’s degree in my Ph.D. around brain games. So this is now 2007. So it was sort of one of the hot topics at the time, but how can we use these brain games to help improve our mental functions. And, of course, we know now that brain games help you get better at the game itself, but it doesn’t help you get better at generalized cognitive functions. So it’s very targeted in what you can see improvements in. If you’re playing a brain game, for example, where you’re finding words in bubbles, you get better at finding words in bubbles, you don’t get better at remembering your list of groceries when you’re at the grocery store. And so the question then became… brain games are so limited in what they do to improve our brain health, what else can we be doing, and I finished my Ph.D. in 2013. And around 2014 2015, a lot of research started coming out about the impact of a healthy lifestyle, on maintaining our brain health and helping to preserve our brain health. And I became very fascinated with this whole notion of using lifestyle to help keep our brain functioning as well as it possibly could. And as an academic, I have the ability to read an academic research article and to interpret it, and disseminate that information. But what I kept seeing in everyday newspapers and magazines about brain health was what I saw as too narrow-minded, it was always this list of, you know, five to 10 things that you should do to keep your brain healthy. And these lists and variably included learning to play an instrument, gardening, learning a new language, reading a book doing a crossword, for example. And to me, it’s not that those things are bad for your brain, they’re not bad for your brain. The issue is that not everyone likes to do those things. And so if you read a list that says, you know, here are the five things you need to do to keep your brain healthy, play, learn to play the guitar, and you’re like, well, I don’t really want to learn to play good guitar. So that isn’t going to help you improve your brain if it’s not something that you’re going to be doing consistently enough. And so I read these newspaper articles and magazine articles. And it really solidified for me that there was a gap in the information that was being provided to everyday people. And so I founded my company brain shape, to fill that gap to disseminate real-life examples and real-world data on what we can do to keep our brain healthy. And really to highlight the fact that it’s not, there’s not a list of things like of course, there are pillars of brain health, and I think we’ll talk about that a little bit later on. But there isn’t a list of activities you should do to keep your brain healthy. What we need to do to keep our brain healthy is unique to each of us. And it requires that we determine First of all, where we are currently. And then building on our current positioning and building our mental challenges around our current interest and our current abilities.

Liz Craven  09:31

Right. So let’s take a step back. And let’s break it down as it relates to the term brain health. What do we mean when we say brain health?

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  09:43

So to me, when I think about brain health, I’m talking about keeping the actual physical structures of the brain healthy and intact. And it’s also about maintaining brain function and preserving your cognitive ability So brain health to me is really keeping your brain in the healthiest, most optimal functioning way that it could possibly be. And brain health is not just about challenging your mind. So in those research are in the magazine and newspaper articles where they have that list of activities to keep your brain healthy, and it was all about, they’re always about mental challenges. So learn a new language, do a crossword play an instrument that’s challenging your mind. And that isn’t the only thing that’s involved in brain health. So keeping your brain healthy is about keeping your heart healthy, keeping your body healthy, keeping your cardiovascular system healthy. All of that is related to brain health as well.

Liz Craven  10:48

It all works together, doesn’t it?

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  10:51

It really does.

Liz Craven  10:52

So you’ve broken down brain health, and the approach to brain health into four pillars. Can you give us an overview of what those are? And then we can maybe talk about each one of those a little more specifically? Yes, of course.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  11:07

So I always talk about the four key pillars of brain health. So the first one is physical fitness. The second one is food and nutrition. The third pillar is socializing or our social connectedness with others. And then the fourth pillar is what I call mental considerations. And that includes sleeping well, managing the stress in your life, and also challenging your mind.

Liz Craven  11:38

So let’s jump into the very first one.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  11:42

Yes, so physical fitness. This is such an important pillar of brain health. If someone were to ask me, What is the one thing I should do to keep my brain healthy if you could only say one thing, and I would hang my hat on physical fitness, if I was only allowed to choose one, of course, I talked about all four key pillars. And that’s all-important. But if I had to choose one, the biggest bang for your buck would be physical fitness, because that’s going to keep your heart healthy, and your cardiovascular system healthy as well. But I always talk about the importance of moving your body every single day. So I don’t like thinking about physical fitness as only what we look think of when we talk about exercise. It’s not just about going to the gym, and running on a treadmill is just about getting your body up and moving. And I don’t like the sort of rules around like, Oh, 150 minutes per week, it’s so hard for people, I think, to keep track of how much they’ve done or not done. And I, to me, it’s about integrating these pillars into your everyday life seamlessly. And so to me, it’s about moving your body for 30 minutes, every single day, whatever that looks like even if you’re just going for a walk, or riding your bike around or walking out using the stairs instead of using the elevator when you go to your office building. So it’s just about being mindful of the fact that you’re moving your body every single day. And the importance of keeping your body moving is this concept called neurogenesis. So when we exercise, we are actually increasing the likelihood of neurogenesis. And neurogenesis is our brain’s ability to grow new brain cells. And so humans grow around 700 new brain cells every single day. So this just happens naturally. But when you exercise, research shows that we can double or even triple the number of new brain cells that we grow. And the new brain cells that grow in our brains, typically, most of them are growing in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is the special little part of our brain that’s responsible for memory and learning. So if anyone is experiencing sort of minor memory slips that you talked about at the beginning of this episode, exercise and moving your body is such an important way that you can help to start to grow new brain cells in the memory center of your brain. And it also increases the production of a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. And the acronym is BDNF. And this BDNF helps these new brain cells grow and mature. So when you’re exercising, you’re increasing the amount of new brain cells that you grow, and you’re also increasing the likelihood that these new brain cells will survive and actually make connections to existing neural networks in your brain.

Liz Craven  14:56

That’s fascinating.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  14:58

Yes, and I do believe That when we have the meaning behind the action, then it gives us more of a drive a motivation to actually execute on it. Because oftentimes, when I’m moving my body, I’m thinking about the benefits of it, like, Oh, I’m helping my body function better function more efficiently. When we’re exercising, we also are more effective at metabolizing sugar. So it actually helps your insulin work more efficiently at pulling the sugar out of your bloodstream. So when I’m moving, I’m like, okay, body like, I know that you need this to function at an optimal level.

Liz Craven  15:40

And it’s really important to point out that, I want to repeat what you said about it being the most important thing because I think it tends to be something that caregivers put at the bottom of their list. And that’s just because self-care goes to the bottom of the list. And we’ve been talking about that over the last several weeks in the episodes that we’ve done, how important self-care is. And so here is yet another piece of evidence that says that has to move to the top of the list, even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes a day, finding a way to focus on yourself a bit. And to make sure that your own body is healthy, will assist you in being a better caregiver to the one who needs care. It’s also good for the care recipient to be moving their body. And so perhaps there’s a way that caregivers can work it into their day to take a short walk or just get outside even if your loved one isn’t mobile, they can ride in the wheelchair while you take a walk around the block to get your body moving, but also clear your mind.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  16:43

Absolutely, I think that it requires a shift in our perception. Because we often think about self-care as selfish or not a productive use of our time. But if we start to think about our self-care as an essential component of us functioning at our optimal level, and showing up as the best version of ourselves, it will no longer start to feel like it’s a waste of time, or this extra thing that I’m doing for just myself. by me taking care of myself, I’m allowing myself to show up as the best version of me, which benefits everyone around me.

Liz Craven  17:24

That is so true. Okay, so let’s go to the second pillar.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  17:30

Yes. So the second pillar is food and nutrition. And sort of the key take-home when it comes to food and nutrition is really to focus on eating nutrient-dense Whole Foods and to avoid processed foods. And you can think about processed foods as anything that is pre-packaged. So it’s a frozen package of food or comes in a can or anything that’s been prepared in advance. And when you think about processed foods, there’s obviously varying degrees of how much pre-processing has been done on the food. But I always encourage people to look at the ingredients list. And think about if you recognize all of the items on that ingredients list or not. So if you’re having, for example, a can of tomatoes that you’re going to use in a tomato sauce, and you look at the ingredients list, and there’s like 25 things, that’s to me, should be alarm bells going off, because it’s just a can of tomatoes, the ingredients should be Canadian, tomatoes, maybe some spices. That’s it, right. Anything else is not going to be a whole food. And so we really need to be taking out any foods that we don’t recognize any of those chemical names that we are confused by. Those are the damaging elements inside these processed foods. And also processed foods have a substantial amount of sugar. So if you see any sort of sugar in the ingredients list, fructose corn syrup, or cane sugar or just added sugar, that is also an alarm bell because there’s so much added sugar in processed foods and sugar is really damaging to our cardiovascular system and our blood vessels. But when I talk about food and nutrition, I always mentioned this Mediterranean diet as a general framework that people can use when thinking about what they should be eating. So you want to be focused on eating nutrient-dense, Whole Foods. So lots of vegetables, lots of fruit in the Mediterranean diet. They also talk about including some dairy products, but it’s mostly milk and yogurt. I really like Greek yogurt because it has lots of protein in it. Also minimal amounts of red meats because of the saturated fat content in that and so you prioritizing if you do eat meat, you’re prioritizing eating leaner meats such as chicken or turkey. And then also no processed foods and really minimal amounts of sugar, and desserts and sweets. And that sort of those types of items in what I call the what is called the Mediterranean diet. But I don’t like the term diet, because I also want people to think about, you know, when we talk about these lifestyle factors, and how we’re going to integrate them, it isn’t for a moment in time, it’s not like, Okay, this month, I’m really going to take care of myself, I’m going to cut all of these foods out, I’m not going to eat, you know, these packaged foods for the next month, think about how can you modify your lifestyle in a sustainable way, because anything we do for a few days a week or a month, that’s not going to have a lasting impact on our overall health. So we really want to think about how can we begin to modify our diet in a way that we can actually create sustainable change?

Liz Craven  21:05

That’s really smart to mention. And by the way, these are all things that are good for people of any age, and any stage these are all just very basic principles that we should all be paying attention to, in our lives taking care of our bodies.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  21:21

Absolutely. To me, it’s not when we think about, you know, when is the optimal time to start taking care of our brain health, I don’t think that there’s a specific age, of course, my platform, brain shape is is targeted towards older adults, because that’s my focus. That’s where my expertise comes from. But it isn’t, you know, only at this age, we’re supposed to start taking care of our health, there’s research that shows that our sort of peak cognitive performance, on average, is around 35 years old. And that’s the average peak. So some people might peak earlier at 25. Some people might peak later at 45, or 55. But the average is 35. And so you can think about if that’s the peak, then people are starting to decline cognitively. After that, we need to be thinking about maintaining brain health, at all points in our life. And I really think that we, when I talk about brain health and brain-healthy activities, it is just these lifestyle approaches. And so we need to be building those lifestyle changes into our everyday experience on a regular basis because you want to get to the point where you’re not thinking about it. It’s just a part of how you live your life.

Liz Craven  22:44

And frankly, that’s good for the whole family. A lot of caregivers are caring for their loved ones who are aging, but also for their children. And so looking after your own brain health, and looking after the brain health of the rest of your family by incorporating healthy routines, healthy, you know, things that you’re doing and the things that you’re consuming. Those are all things that will benefit everybody in the home.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  23:11

Yeah. And we if you think about building healthy habits, like kids, it starts when you are a little kid, so and there’s no age to me when I think about, you know, how do you when you start thinking about this, and when you start integrating brain healthy activities in your life, it is across the entire lifespan, in my opinion. I love it.

Liz Craven  23:30

All right, on to pillar number three.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  23:33

Yes. So pillar number three is socializing. So this is the more fun pillar. Yes, it is it’s so important. And we can think about our social networks have really been tied to our survival mechanism for all of our human existence, because we were better able to survive if we were in groups. And so if you are not in a group in a network, we it sort of sends off these warning signals in our brain. So socializing actually protects our sense of safety and security. But you can also think about socializing, social interaction, having a meaningful conversation with someone as a very complex mental activity. So I have to listen to the words that are coming out of your mouth, Liz, keep it in mind, while I put together what I’m about to say, pulling on information that I have in my memory, and then putting that together in a meaningful way and then sending that information out to you. So all of that activity takes place in a very short amount of time. So it’s a very complex social activity. So it’s really important that we maintain our social connections with others. And I would also like to remind any listeners to pay attention to how they feel in their social interactions. Because it isn’t just about, you know, checkmark, I talk to someone for an hour today. So I satisfied my social engagement requirement. It’s not about that, right, it’s about being in these sort of meaningful, engaging dynamics. So think about how you feel also when you’re with the people that you’re socializing with because we obviously all have experiences of being in social scenarios that are stressful and unpleasant. And so take note of that, and really start to build out your social network in a way that helps you feel like the best version of yourself. But it also is engaging with people that stimulate you on a mental level, but also provide the support the emotional support that we need during, for example, stressful times in our lives. So socializing is so important on so many levels, not just the mental complexity of the activity, but also the emotional support that comes with those connections.

Liz Craven  26:03

You know, that component itself has changed so much over the last month because of COVID. So that social interaction that used to be easy to come by has become a little more difficult, especially for those who are maybe living by themselves, or they are a caregiver or caring for an aging loved one without a network around them. So have you seen a difference in the way that people are making up for that? Yes, so

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  26:35

I think you’re absolutely right, because of covid 19, we’ve sort of been forced to change the way that we socialize with people. For a lot of us, we’re no longer gathering in groups, in close-knit groups with our physical peers and our friends and family. And so to me, it’s about how do you maintain social connections, given safety guidelines. So if we are, you know, distance socializing, hanging out with each other outside, and we’re all staying Oh, six, at least six feet apart, so you can still see your friends in that social network, but it’s, you’re just standing farther away, but the social dialogue that takes place is still the same. A lot more people are getting on more zoom calls and conversing with individuals in a more virtual realm, which is also interesting because you can think about it as an added benefit or opportunity to connect with people that you wouldn’t normally be connecting within such a frequent on such a frequent basis. So some people I know, yeah, they’re talking to like family members that live in another country that they only see once every five years. And now they’re talking every single month, because they have these, like zoom family gatherings where they all get together. And so it’s actually if you think about it, and switch your perspective, there’s an added opportunity that we have to think outside of the box and to actually reach out to new networks of people, and to start to cultivate meaningful social connections, outside of what we traditionally thought of as social interaction.

Liz Craven  28:18

You know, I’ve enjoyed seeing how people have gotten creative about that. And I love the yard visits, people go set up lawn chairs in the front yard and have a picnic and knock on the door. The other person comes out and sits across the yard from them. I’ve seen a lot of things like that I’ve seen a lot of really incredible programs, from organizations like AARP, and Area Agencies on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association, who have distributed technology to people to allow for the interaction minus the in-person interaction, you know, the virtual world and, and providing training for people to be able to do that. So I think we’ve come a long way. And I think perhaps some of these things will be tools that will benefit in a big way, long term. It’s also another opportunity to exercise your brain learning something new.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  29:16

Yes, definitely. I actually encourage a lot of people to lean into mental challenges. So when I talk to my dad, my dad’s 80 years old, and he initially is like, I don’t want to use zoom or new internet platforms like it’s too much. There’s a new username, a new password, it’s so difficult. And I remind him that difficulty is part of the initial process for anyone learning a new platform. I think there’s a misconception that if you are older or you aren’t that proficient with technology, it’s going to be outside of your capacity. Whereas if I’m learning a new platform, I anticipate it’s going to be challenging at first, I’m like, this is gonna take me a second to figure out. So I’m gonna give myself some added buffer time because it’s probably I’m gonna have to watch some YouTube videos and really get into it before I actually understand it. But that’s the amazing thing about our brain is because it’s plastic and malleable, we eventually learn and it becomes a lot easier. But we all have to go through that initial discomfort and challenge upfront. And it is, in my opinion, good for your brain to get out of your comfort zone and to challenge yourself and to force those new neural connections to take place.

Liz Craven  30:40

Absolutely, I love it. All right, and on to the final pillar.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  30:45

Yes. So the final pillar is called mental considerations. And it actually includes three sort of sub pillars. So inside mental considerations is sleep. So getting good quality sleep, as well as managing your stress and challenging your brain. So I’ll start with Sleep, sleep is really essential for the proper functioning of your brain. And the main reason is, because when we are in deep sleep, these glial cells in our brain get turned on. And this is basically the time at which your brain sort of undergoes this deep cleaning process. And all of this toxic buildup that takes place throughout the day gets washed away when we are in deep sleep. But if you don’t sleep for long enough, you’re not going to get enough of that deep sleep for these toxic buildup and these plaques to get washed away. So it’s really important that we have good quality sleep, and a proper sleep routine and hygiene so that our brain can do this cleaning process that it wants and needs to do every single night.

Liz Craven  31:59

I love the priority on sleep. I’m just gonna put it right out there that pillar four is probably the hardest as it relates to making sure that you’re doing a good job of those things.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  32:11

Yes, absolutely. Because I think a lot of people know they need to be sleeping well. And they also know they need to not be stressed out for brain health. But it’s like, but I’m not sleeping. And I’m really stressed out. So what am I supposed to do about that? Like I can’t, I know this isn’t good, quote, unquote. But I don’t know how to rectify it. And to those people, I would say that there are solutions out there. So if you are a poor sleeper, for example, and you’ve struggled with sleep for years and years, or decades and decades, there is a way out of it. But it requires oftentimes some guidance and some dedication to the process. Because changing your sleeping patterns is not an easy process. But it is possible. It just you have to think about our habits. And your body is set on a certain sort of ritual and routine. And so if you go to bed every night at 2am, and you have to get up at 6am, your body is primed to go to bed at 2am. So if you try to get into bed at nine, your body’s like, what are we doing in here, like we’re never asleep at 9pm, like I don’t understand. So you’ll just lay awake for hours and hours and think that it’s so difficult, but you have to begin your journey from where you are. So if your sleep time is 2am, and you know that that’s too late, because you have to get up at six. And that’s not enough sleep, you have to start to move that sleep time from the 2am mark, you can’t just jump to 9pm and be like why aren’t I sleeping? This is so frustrating. You have to start where you’re at. But it is definitely possible. But there’s a systematic routine that needs to take place for you to bring your body up into the specific rhythm that you want to have for your sleep routine. And the same I think goes for stress. So just like sleep, we know we need sleep. And sometimes people have a challenge of getting good quality sleep. And it’s the same with stress. We know stress is bad for our brains and our bodies, but we feel stressed. And so we don’t know how to get out of that feeling.

Liz Craven  34:28

Well, especially as a caregiver, not only are you dealing with the stress of the world, and let’s be honest, our world is a stressful place right now. But you’re dealing with that stress. And on top of that, you’re dealing with the stress of caring for an aging loved one, which means that there is emotional stress that comes along with that. That whole role reversal of becoming the child becoming the parent, the parent becomes the child. That’s really hard. It’s really emotional. So that’s one stressor. Many caregivers are getting caring for children at the same time as they’re caring for their aging loved ones. So that’s another stress. I don’t have time I don’t have you know, I, there’s really just not enough time and most caregivers day to give a proper release of all of the stress that’s happening. And I think that’s why for me, you know, as I’m looking at the four pillars, this is the one that would be the most difficult to get right.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  35:28

Yes, absolutely. It reminds me of a quote from one of the guests I’ve had on my podcast previously, Ron Bellino, he said, to increase caregiver success, we need to spread the stress.

Liz Craven  35:43

If we can figure out how to do that.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  35:45

Yeah, well I think that a lot of people because you talked about, you know, there isn’t enough time. And there, people are often caring for their aged loved one and their kids. And they have a full-time job. And and and and it’s like, how am I going to do all of this? And that’s the point is that it’s too much. Right? So how do you identify that this is too much for me to bear this burden is there’s too much going on right now there’s too much on my plate. And to think about what on this plate Can I not necessarily just delegate and get off the plate completely, but who can help support me during this process as well. And asking for help, I think is sometimes really hard for people to do, because we want to think about like I can do it all I can take care of everyone. And there’s sometimes this sort of mental barrier around if we can’t do it all, then we’re somehow failures. And we don’t want to be a failure, we want to show up for our family. But if we don’t acknowledge our own stress level and our own burnout, we’re going to get to a stage where you’re going to be forced to take stuff off your plate, or to just give the plate away completely, because now you have completely run yourself ragged and you are no longer able to show up for anyone, which no one wants, honestly. Right?

Liz Craven  37:07

Right. I think it’s so important. You mentioned asking for help. And I go to a lot of chat rooms, for support groups for caregivers. And the thing I hear over and over again is frustration about the lack of help, but also that it’s just easier to do it myself, you know, so we have to get to a place as caregivers, and I’ve been there been a caregiver three times over. And I think I learned along the way, first time didn’t do it. So well. The second time did a better job. But by the third time, we knew how to do that. We knew how to ask for help. And yeah, initially, it might be a little bit more work to orient somebody and to put somebody in place to help you with something. But I tell you, it is worth the effort to do that. Because it does allow you to just remove one little element from your plate. And if you don’t have to think about that little thing on an ongoing basis, it gives you more capacity to do the things that it is important for you to personally do. So I thought that asking for help is super important. And you know, I know that a lot of caregivers, when this conversation crops up about self-care and making time for yourself. A lot of caregivers even get angry at the conversation because they just don’t understand how they can make it happen. And the asking for help piece. That’s how you make it happen.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  38:34

Yes. And I think it’s really important that and we’ve been highlighting it today is that it’s difficult to ask for help. So when you come up against the sort of pushback from your own internal dialogue about asking for help, and why you shouldn’t notice that. And notice that that’s your sort of ego getting in the way. It’s like, no, it’s easier for me to do it myself and they’re going to do it wrong. And I have to take on all of this work myself, take a step back and ask yourself, why do I need to do all of this? What is inside of me, not the external forces that are making me feel like I have to do all these things? It’s often coming from inside of us that we feel we need to do XYZ, or else it means something. Hmm.

Liz Craven  39:27

Well, caregivers or something else, they are a breed all their own Amazing, amazing people. I am fascinated every time I talk to a caregiver about all that they do so, so happy to be talking about that.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  39:41

So when we talk about stress, it’s I mean, everyone knows that it’s bad for us to experience stress on a consistent basis. And the interesting thing is if we think about our stress response in humans it developed to help us survive, but it was only meant To be felt in short bursts. So if you think about a hundred, hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our stress response was evolving, it was, you know, to run away from a saber-toothed Tiger that you came across on your voyage. And so you would see the tiger in the distance, and you’re like, Oh, no, there’s a tiger. And so your heart rate would start to increase, your blood pressure would increase, you will start to breathe faster to get more oxygen around your body, sugar gets sent out into your bloodstream because your body and brain is anticipating needing the energy to flee this Tiger that’s in front of you. So all of this happens to help us survive. But now we’re getting stressed out, you know, sitting on the phone with someone or reading an email or sitting in conversation with someone and the same physiological changes are taking place, your heart rates, increasing, your blood pressure is increasing, sugar still gets sent out into your bloodstream, even though you aren’t running or doing anything physical that you need energy for. So all of that happens. And if we’re constantly stressed out that’s happening on a consistent basis. And that is damaging your cardiovascular system. It’s damaging your blood vessels. And cortisol, which is our stress hormone, it actually attacks a certain part of our brain called the hippocampus that we talked about earlier. But that’s the memory and learning part of our brain. And so it actually damages constant chronic stress damages the hippocampus in the brain. And so stress is bad for our bodies and our brains. And I think everyone knows that. But I think when we start to feel that stress response in our bodies and I talk a lot about awareness, but notice that and notice what is happening in your environment that’s creating that feeling, and become in tune with what’s driving that stress response. And also noticing what’s driving it so that you can make modifications around it, but also trying to down-regulate that stress response so that you aren’t doing all of the damage that is taking place when you elicit that stress response. So one of the key sort of stress management tools that I like to talk about is deep breathing. And it’s so obvious, and it’s so easy, but I don’t think enough of us actually utilize this tool that we have access to at any moment in time. Because we’re always breathing, of course, but if you breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in, so you elongate your exhale, and you so if you breathe in for a count of four, and out for a count of eight, and you do that, say 10 times in a row, you’re going to literally feel your body Calm down, you’re going to feel your heart rates not going to be as quick. And you’re stimulating something in your body called your vagus nerve, which is activating a side of your nervous system called your parasympathetic nervous system. And this is the side of your nervous system that’s involved with resting and digesting. And it only get your parasympathetic nervous system works in opposition to your sympathetic nervous system, which is the fight or flight response. So when you turn on your parasympathetic nervous system with this deep breathing, you automatically ramped down your fight or flight response.

Liz Craven  43:33

Gosh, you are a fountain of information. Thank you. So now that we’ve identified all of these things that we need to be paying attention to, I think this is the perfect time for you to tell us more about brain shape.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  43:47

Yes, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much. So I have a podcast. So for all you podcast listeners out there. It’s called the brain shape podcast. So brain shape is one word in the title of my podcast. And it’s a show that comes out every single Tuesday. So it’s a weekly show. And at the time of this recording, there are 87 episodes out in the world. And so we talk about everything related to brain health. We talk about Music and Memory, we talk about our stress response, we talked about sleep, we talked about mindfulness and meditation, gut health, we talk about so many different topics and I interview incredible experts in their specific field of interest. And so the information that’s on that podcast really is extremely valuable in my opinion, but it’s because of the quality of the experts that I have invited onto the show. So anyone that’s interested in learning more about brain health, we obviously touched on a lot of different topics today, but this The podcast is really a labor of love for me. And it’s a way for me to really share and disseminate important information about how we can begin to think about our brain health and really integrated into our every day lives. So that’s one sort of platform that I have through brain shape, the brain shape podcast, but I also have a one on one coaching experience called the brain vitality blueprint. And that’s my 90-day one on one coaching methodology where I teach people about the different pillars of brain health that we talked about today, and also how to integrate those pillars into their everyday lives. So this 90-day program involves these weekly educational modules that I send out to anyone who’s enrolled in the program. And then so on in the educational modules, we go in-depth into all these different topics of brain health, but we also talk about how to integrate those pillars into your everyday life. And the way that I help support my clients is through this one on one coaching calls that happen every single week. So accountability is a huge part, I think of actually implementing the information that you learn about brain health, and how can you begin to put these pillars into place in your everyday life in a way that is seamless, and actually easy to bring to fruition in your regular life. And so the brain vitality blueprint is really this coaching experience that helps people learn about the pillars of brain health, and really integrate them in a sustainable way.

Liz Craven  46:44

I love that you have that because honestly when we’re learning something new, especially when our plates are full, having someone to handhold you through the process is a really good thing. I think that what you’re doing is absolutely incredible. And we will provide links to everything that was just shared with you in the show notes and also in the blog posts for Episode 32. So you’ll be able to find her easily and learn more about those programs on your own. Well, thank you for sharing that. And as it relates to your contact points, we’re going to lead people to your website, are there any other places you’d like for them to find you? Yeah, so

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  47:25

if anyone’s on social media, I love connecting with people there. My handle is at brain shape to and it’s that at brain shape to on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, on all of the places. But I love connecting with people on social media. And of course, they can come and listen to the podcast as well. And that’s on all podcast platforms. But people can also listen directly through our website at brain forward slash podcast.

Liz Craven  47:56

That’s a great day. Tuesday is when we drop our episodes as well. So just subscribe to Dr. Andrea’s show. As you’re subscribed to ours. You’ll get them in your playlist and not have to go looking for them. So that’s terrific. Thanks for sharing that.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  48:12

If anyone has any questions or wants to reach out to me personally, they can email me directly at I’d be so happy to connect with anyone if they have any questions.

Liz Craven  48:27

Thank you so much for today. This has been a fantastic conversation, so full of good information that people can apply and make their life better today.

Dr. Andrea Wilkinson  48:38

Thank you so much for having me. It was such a pleasure.

Liz Craven  48:42

And be sure to check back weekly for our latest episode. You can find us any place you access your podcast or you can go directly to Sage And I’d love to know how you think we’re doing. We’d love to hear from you and your feedback helps to make this podcast the best resource possible. If you’re enjoying Sage Aging i’d love it. If you would subscribe, follow or leave us a review, but more importantly, share it with a friend. If you have topics you’d like for me to cover or guests that you’d like for me to invite to the show. drop me a line at info at Sage Thanks for listening, everyone. We’ll talk real soon.

Liz Craven
Author: Liz Craven

Liz Craven, along with her husband Wes, owns Pro-Ad Media, publisher of Sage Aging ElderCare Guide, serving the local community for over 28 years. Liz lives in Lakeland and is very active in the local community, specifically in the area of aging. Liz serves on a number of local boards and committees including the Lakeland Vision and Age Friendly Lakeland.