Safeguard Your Memory with These Brain-Boosting Tips

Staying physically active, constantly learning new things, and being social are all ways to keep your mind sharp and happy as you age.

senior woman chatting around afternoon tea outside
Photo: Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

We all have those moments when we forget something seemingly obvious, like where we put our car keys or reading glasses, or about those dinner plans we made with a friend a few nights prior. When those forgetful instances increase, though, we begin to question whether or not something might be wrong in terms of our brain or memory. The good news is that, for most of us, these slips of the mind are normal—even if we feel them happening more frequently as we age. These lapses are often the result of being stressed, busy, and overwhelmed, notes Philip E. Stieg, Ph.D., M.D., the neurosurgeon-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center and the host of the This Is Your Brain podcast. "In our multi-tasking day and age, it could be a matter of attention, not memory—if you're not paying attention to where you put your keys, you never formed a memory of where they are," he says.

It's true, however, that our brains change through the years, and that some of those changes can affect our memory. "The brain's processing speed naturally slows as you age, which may make people concerned when they feel that they have a slower reaction time while driving or can't come up with the right name word or word," says Dr. Stieg. "These are usually not memory issues at all, but rather natural processing speed issues that are nothing to worry about." Luckily, it is absolutely possible to safeguard your memory as you age. Here, brain experts share the best advice they give their patients.

Stay physically active.

You know how important exercise is to your overall health, but you may not realize just how impactful it is for your brain. "Exercise has also been shown to improve our emotions and even increase the size of brain structures involved in memory," says Benjamin Hampstead, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at University of Michigan Health who sees patients at the VA Ann Arbor; he is also the clinical core leader at the statewide Michigan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. What's more, The Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends moderate exercise for at least two-and-a-half hours per week for optimal health—brain-boosting benefits, included.

Challenge yourself to learn and do new things.

Although it might push you out of your comfort zone, learning to do new things engages a number of different brain regions and strengthens the way they communicate, notes Dr. Hampstead. Trying and mastering a previously unexplored hobby requires you to remember new information, and actually mimics a common clinical practice for memory retention: "The method, known as cognitive training, involves repeated practice with specific cognitive abilities (like remembering information) and has some evidence indicating it can be effective under certain conditions," he explains.

Be social.

There are so many reasons why it is important to maintain healthy social relationships, but increasing research, including one study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, is showing the benefits of social interactions in the fight against cognitive decline. As such, Dr. Stieg recommends seeing friends and family members regularly and staying in touch by phone or virtual hangouts when physical get-togethers are not possible.

Improve your diet.

The standard American diet (SAD) is laden with and fried processed foods and low in fruits and vegetables—the foods that actually help boost brain health. Processed snacks create inflammation, which is linked to both mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, notes Dr. Stieg. "In fact, some researchers are now calling Alzheimer's disease 'type 3 diabetes'—that's how high the risk is for those who eat poorly." He recommends filling half of your plate with nutrient-rich veggies like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach, and lowering your intake of processed foods on the whole.

Manage your stress levels.

A little jolt of stress hormones isn't bad for you, but Dr. Stieg warns that living in a near-constant state of stress can be damaging to your brain. "Over time, too much cortisol can damage your brain's connectivity and actually kill off brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, which affects your memory," he says. To alleviate cortisol's effects, consider partaking in some stress-relieving activities such as yoga, meditation, and journaling, he adds.

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