If you’re having trouble remembering things, that may be perfectly normal. Just as your bones and muscles start to lose mass as you age if you don’t take care of them, so does your brain. “The part of the brain largely involved in memory—the hippocampus—starts shrinking at a rate of 0.5 percent a year on average, starting at age 40,” says Majid Fotuhi, M.D., chairman of the Memosyn Neurology Institute, in Lutherville, Maryland, and a staff affiliate at Johns Hopkins Howard County General Hospital. With a few healthy lifestyle changes, however, you can start reclaiming your memory, concentration, and mental acuity, he says: “What’s amazing is that some parts of your brain are very malleable. They’re a lot easier to change than your biceps.”
Give It a Workout
Moving your body is one of the best things you can do for your brain. “When you exercise, your heart pumps oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells, and your body produces chemicals that stimulate the brain cells to sprout branches and communicate more effectively,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain (Humanix).
The effects can be both instant and longterm. A study analysis published in 2013 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 10 to 40 minutes of exercise among preteens, teens, and young adults was associated with better cognitive function immediately afterward, which researchers attribute in part to the increased blood flow to the brain. Another study, done by the University of British Columbia in 2013, found that women between 70 and 80 years old with mild cognitive decline showed a 4 percent increase in their hippocampal volume after six months of walking briskly for 40 minutes twice a week.
Feed Your Mind
Diet can also keep your brain healthy. Over the years, the effects of free radicals (reactive oxygen molecules that result from breathing, moving, eating—i.e., simply being alive) accumulate and cause wear and tear on the brain. “So when we talk about a youngerbrain diet, we’re talking about antioxidants—molecules that reverse free-radical damage,” says Small. That means ramping up your intake of berries, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables. (The USDA recommends 4 to 4.5 cups a day of these and other types of produce for women.)
Small also encourages a daily intake of foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like most fish, nuts, olives, and avocados. They fight inflammation, which has been linked to cognitive decline. Most experts recommend fish only twice a week, because more could introduce excess mercury. Small adds that taking fish-oil supplements is an easy way to get your daily omega-3s.
Get Your Zzzzs
Chronic insomnia can result in a loss of neurons, which are responsible for sending signals through the brain. Slightly less-than-optimal sleep can have an effect, too. A study of older adults by Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore, published in 2014, found a correlation between the number of hours participants slept each night and their performance on a variety of cognitive tests. Fotuhi believes eight to nine hours a night is the sweet spot for clear thinking.
Tone Down the Tech
“As we get older, our ability to resist interference declines,” says Adam Gazzaley, M.D., a professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. So in an era when our phones are constantly dinging at us, our working memory—responsible for immediate tasks and thoughts—often falters. (What did I come to the dairy aisle for again?) Distractions may affect long-term memory, too. “If you’re not paying attention, you don’t get the information in your memory storage and can’t retrieve it later,” says Small.
The solution? “It sounds simple, but controlling your environment and minimizing distractions make a big difference,” says Gazzaley. In other words, he recommends giving the smartphone—or TV, or whatever it is that encourages you to multitask—a break. In a 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research, researchers found that people who participated in eight weeks of mindfulness sessions—a form of meditation that stresses living in the moment—showed increased density in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory.
Perhaps the most enjoyable way to increase your brain wattage is to adopt a new hobby or acquire a new skill. “If you decide to learn Italian over a few months, for example, your hippocampus will grow significantly,” says Fotuhi. But almost any kind of learning can improve the brain (just the push you needed to finally take those guitar lessons!). The key is to keep challenging yourself—follow up those Italian lessons with French, say. Your brain will thank you.
When It’s Not Normal
Unlike the typical aging brain, a brain with Alzheimer’s symptoms shows a significant loss of nerve cells, as well as an abnormal buildup of proteins (known as plaques and tangles) that damage the cells and weaken the connections between them. As a result, says Molly Wagster, Ph.D., a cognitive-aging expert at the National Institutes of Health, patients lose the ability to think, remember, and learn
It’s worth investigating short-term memory lapses if they interfere with normal daily activities—for instance, if you invite friends over for dinner but are surprised when they show up, or if you forget the route to your office.
Individuals might also have trouble following a conversation or solving everyday problems, or experience changes in their sense of humor or mood.
If you’re having lapses that concern you, talk to your doctor. She should be able to find out whether they are related to other causes (such as depression, lack of sleep, or hormonal imbalances), or if you should undergo an additional workup with a specialist, says Ruth Kolb Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association. “While a cure is not yet available, an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s allows you to start treatment options that help with the symptoms of the disease and improve your quality of life.”