How to Protect Your Memory as You Age
Diet, exercise, and a robust social life are so important.
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Have you noticed that your memory isn't quite as sharp now as it was in your 20s? You're not alone: Many people report that memory declines as they age, says Dr. Gary Small, the director of the UCLA Longevity Center, director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, and a member of Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board. "By age 45, the memory ability of the average individual has declined compared to 20 years earlier, and there is a gradual increase in forgetfulness into our 50s, 60s, and beyond."
There is good news: Though genes certainly play a factor, there are changes you can make to keep your memory sharp as you age. "Although genetic inheritance contributes to the rate of age-associated cognitive decline, for the average person, non-genetic factors, including lifestyle choices, have a greater impact on how well the brain ages and the degree of cognitive loss," says Dr. Small. Let's take a look at a few different ways to protect your memory as you age (and keep yourself feeling crystal clear well into your golden years).
Eat a Healthy Diet
What you eat has a direct impact on your cognitive function, so sticking with a healthy, balanced diet is key. There are even certain foods that have been found to be effective in supporting brain health. "Heightened brain inflammation has been linked to memory difficulties," continues Dr. Small. "Consume foods rich in omega-3 fats, like fish and nuts, which fight brain inflammation that increases with age."
In addition to omega-3s, antioxidants can also protect your memory. Colorful fruits and vegetables are rich in them, as is green tea, which contains polyphenols (another source), notes Dr. Elana Clar, a board-certified neurologist at North Jersey Brain and Spine. And while eating the right foods is important, it's just as important to avoid others. "Minimize consumption of refined sugars and processed foods that increase body weight and risk for diabetes, which increases the risk for memory loss," says Dr. Small.
Regular exercise is a must for healthy aging, and that includes aging of the mind and memory. Make "getting at least two-and-a-half hours a week of aerobic exercise" a priority and "always find ways to be physically active, whether it be by taking the stairs instead of an elevator, a stroll in the park, or trying a dance class," says Dr. Clar. Dancing, in particular, is a great exercise in protecting memory and supporting brain health. "The physical exertion, social interaction, and sensory stimulation of dancing may support brain health," adds Dr. Small. "Studies of experienced dancers show increased activity in brain neural circuits—and their brain scans show heightened activity in regions that control movement, balance, and social interactions."
Keep in Touch
Regular social interaction is not only a must for keeping loneliness at bay, but it can also help support cognitive function. "Human beings are social beings," says Dr. Clar. "Socializing is critical to our happiness, and can be the best form of brain exercise!" Dr. Small agrees. "Remaining social and engaging in even brief conversations has been shown to benefit memory abilities," he says. "Conversations also help people avoid feelings of loneliness, which can increase isolation and diminish mood—which can ultimately increase forgetfulness."
Keep Your Brain Engaged
One of the best things you can do to protect your memory is to keep your brain engaged. Things like attempting puzzles, learning a new instrument, or playing a game of chess can all keep you sharp. And if you're up for a challenge, mastering a new language can be particularly helpful in supporting memory. "A number of studies have demonstrated a link between fluency in more than one language and better mental abilities," notes Dr. Small. "Bilingual people may be exercising their brain circuits by continually deciding which of their two languages to use."
Take a Combined Approach
There's no single lifestyle change you can make that will completely protect your memory as you age; instead, it's about making positive shifts in all areas of your life. "While there is no definitive lifestyle 'recipe' for preventing cognitive decline, research suggests staying physically active, eating a heart-healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, staying cognitively and socially engaged, and not smoking can all reduce our risk, especially if used as a combined approach," says Dr. Rebecca Edelmayer, PhD, the director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer's Association. "In fact, research from the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in 2019 found that combining multiple healthy lifestyle factors was the most impactful way to lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease."
Get Help When You Need It
As you age, some minor memory issues are to be expected. But if you're noticing a steep decline, it's important to get help. "A majority of people will experience some form of age-related memory loss, which is normal; for example, you may experience momentary lapses in memory, like forgetting where you left your car keys, but you remember later," says Dr. Edelmayer. "However, if you forget what car keys do, or are never able to remember a well-known fact or location, there could be a problem that needs evaluation, like Alzheimer's disease or another dementia."
If you're struggling with your memory or are concerned about potential cognitive decline, talk with your doctor. "Someone who is experiencing changes to their memory should have a conversation with their doctor, who can provide an accurate diagnosis and rule out other underlying health problems that could be contributing to the memory loss," she adds.