Pandemic may be placing residents in greater risk of age-related cognitive decline

photo by: Contributed Photo

Dr. Matt Bihlmaier

Staying cooped up and isolated from others may place older Douglas County residents in greater risk of age-related cognitive decline, according to a local health professional.

Dr. Matt Bihlmaier, an internal medicine physician with Reed Internal Medicine, practices primary care with an emphasis in geriatrics. He said he believes the pandemic is creating a higher risk for mental deterioration as well as other mental diseases such as depression and anxiety.

“There’s always going to be age-related cognitive decline that we see in all of our geriatrics,” Bihlmaier said. “The brain is just like any other muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Bihlmaier said he hears concerns about older members of the community from his middle-aged patients. When he asks them about the pandemic, he said a majority of them say they are doing OK but are anxious about their parents’ mental and physical health.

But being stuck inside and isolated from others isn’t just an issue for older community members, Bihlmaier said, and it can have negative effects on anyone.

“We as humans are a social species, and so this disease has rocked everyone’s world,” he said. He recommends that everyone “get outside, get some fresh air” and “communicate safely.”

In a phone interview with the Journal-World on Wednesday, Bihlmaier shared tips for keeping one’s brain active during the pandemic.

Do daily brain exercises

Bihlmaier commonly recommends daily exercises, such as reading the newspaper, doing a word search or completing the crossword puzzle. These practices will help keep the brain engaged, he said.

Stay in contact with friends and family

The elderly population needs to stay connected to others, Bihlmaier said. Prior to the pandemic and before Bihlmaier lived in Lawrence, his older neighbor would walk across the street every day and read to his children.

During the pandemic, Bihlmaier recommends Facetiming.

“I often tell families, see if your grandparents want to Facetime … to read the small children a book at night,” he said. “That’s forcing them to read a book; it’s also keeping a connection with the family.”

Don’t skip doctor’s appointments

When the pandemic first hit, Bihlmaier said he tried to delay his geriatric patients for about the first three months. But now he says it’s important for people to have their routine check-ups with their doctor, even if that means via a telemedicine appointment or by the phone.

Exercise

Exercise is important both mentally and physically, Bihlmaier said, and he’s had multiple patients who’ve gained weight during the pandemic.

“We don’t want to use the pandemic and the fear of catching this as a reason not to exercise,” he said. “That fear is real, and for those patients who don’t want to go outside, there’s a way to get around that.”

Floor foot pedals, Bihlmaier noted, can be purchased on Amazon for under $50. There are YouTube videos on just about anything exercise-related. Bihlmaier recommends at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day.

“This is really a time to start developing those positive healthy habits,” he said. “So when this is over and our lives speed up to 200 miles per hour again, we have those habits and we can keep up with those, which will provide us with long-term health benefits.”

Bihlmaier said he’s had a few patients adopt pets, which helps with companionship and with exercise. One patient, he said, now walks three miles a day with his dog, because it won’t let him do any less.

Practice mind-relaxing techniques before bed

Bihlmaier encourages patients not to watch the news prior to going to bed. The headlines are meant to grab viewers’ attention, he said, which may increase anxiety and stress and make it difficult for people to fall asleep. Instead, Bihlmaier recommends people practice mind-relaxing techniques before bed, such as meditation. This could also help lower blood pressure.


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