With advanced age comes numerous health concerns, but it is memory loss that evokes the most fear. A 2012 survey conducted by the AARP found that staying mentally sharp was the top concern of 64% of the 135,000 members who participated, while a 2017 study (2017 study document no longer available, 2018 report linked) by the Alzheimer’s Association found that more people fear being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia than fear death itself. Though many people believe that there is nothing they can do to prevent cognitive decline, science suggests otherwise: barring the presence of neurodegenerative diseases, there are many steps that people can take to prevent decline and enhance their cognitive health. Here are the steps that have been proven to keep the brain fit. (National Academies Press)
Our memories are built as a result of three separate activities: taking in new information; recording it; and retrieving it. There are several parts of the brain that are involved in this complex series of events, and as we age, physical changes occur that can slow the process, but these changes are less frequently seen in people with higher levels of education: learning actually exercises the brain and keeps it strong in the same way that lifting weights builds muscle. And some studies have shown that there are many ways in which we are able to learn and grow more effectively as a result of aging. (CNN)
If you challenge your brain with new things to learn and vigorous mental activity, you can build and preserve brain connections. Mental stimulation can come from continuing to work or volunteering for a charity: what is most important is that you are learning throughout your life. Consider taking up a new hobby that requires new skills, reading about subjects you’re unfamiliar with, learning a second language or playing games such as chess. Other brain-stretching activities including doing puzzles, playing music, creating art, or working in the garden.
Use Memory Tricks
If you’re having a harder time remembering names of new people, new ideas, errands and the like, use memory tricks called mnemonic devices that optimize how your memory works. Repeating new information makes it easier to retrieve later, as it boosts your brain’s chances of encoding information and reinforces connections between brain cells. Create mental associations between new information and old, or create a story around what you are trying to remember. You can also make it easier to remember complex things like lists by breaking them down into smaller pieces. (Scientific American)
Preserve and Expand Your Social Network
The expansiveness and quality of your social network, and your level of engagement in it, can have a direct impact on your brain health. (AARP). The Lubben Social Network Scale [reference link no longer functional] is an excellent tool for gauging the strength of your support network, which has been directly tied to both physical and mental health outcomes. According to Lisa F. Berkman, Director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, “A lot of people when they think about the elderly focus on social support – things like what can I do for an older mother. But having someone to count on is not what we’re measuring. It’s not about support, it’s about being completely engaged and participating in our society.” (New York Times) Even social media provides a critical benefit, as a study showed that a group of older adults who learned and used Facebook for an 8-week period showed a big uptick in complex working memory. (Oxford University Press)
Being able to do three or four (or more) things at a time may seem like a superpower, and an ability to hope continues as you age, but studies have shown it’s hard on your memory – especially if you’re older. Studies conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that multi-tasking interrupts short-term, working memory to a much greater degree in older people, (UCSF) and that’s why we find ourselves standing in front of a cabinet, unsure of what we had set out to look for moments earlier. As we age, our brains are less able to hold on to information in the face of distraction: this leads to the all-too-familiar phenomenon of being interrupted in the midst of a story leading to forgetting what you were going to say next. The older we get, the more we need to concentrate on the task at hand, and stop giving multiple things partial attention.
Eat with Your Memory in Mind
If you think that “you are, what you eat” is just word salad, think again. A study conducted by the National Institute of Aging looked at the role of diet on memory and found that the higher participants ranked on nutrient intake, the better their scores. Researchers have found that people who take in moderate amounts of caffeine on a regular basis may realize neuroprotective effects that lower the risk of memory loss (CBS News), and others have shown that moderate drinking of alcohol can also lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. But more than anything else, there is a strong link between a nutrient-dense diet and strong thinking skills. The so-called Mediterranean diet – which is made up of fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, nuts, and whole grains – has been directly linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline. (NPR)
Get Regular Exercise
Though you probably think of exercise as something that you do for your body, research has shown that regular exercise has a profound impact on the brain. It builds and preserves thinking skills and boosts memory. (Harvard Medical School) It does this in two ways: first, the physical impact of increased blood flow helps to cut inflammation, restore blood sugar balance and boost the growth of new blood vessels to the brain, helping to preserve existing brain cells and build new ones. But exercise also has the secondary impact of tiring you out so that you get a good night’s sleep, while also improving your mood and cutting down on the stress that can lead to damaging chemicals and hormones being released.
Additionally, a University of California at Los Angeles study revealed that adults over the age of 75 who engage in regular physical activity develop larger brains and reduce their risk of dementia. The expansion specifically takes place in the hippocampus, which controls short-term memory. (Science Daily)
Get Seven Hours of Sleep
The older we get, the less likely we are to get an uninterrupted night of sleep. Unfortunately, in addition to leaving us tired the next day, lack of needed rest can have a profound impact on memory, and on decline in aging in general. (Nature) To improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, pay attention to sleep hygiene issues such as too much screen time too close to bed time, going to bed at irregular hours, too much light or noise in your bedroom, and the quality of your mattress. If you suspect that medications you are taking may be impacting sleep quality, discuss the issue with your physician and see if there are other drugs that would accomplish the same thing without imposing on your rest. Improving the amount of sleep that you get can – and specifically deep sleep – can go a long way towards slowing down the process of cognitive decline and keeping your brain sharp. (University of Texas)