Healthy Living on a Budget

Keep Your Memory Sharp

You can prevent memory lapses by staying mentally and physically fit — and by having fun with your friends.

Here’s something worth remembering: Forgetfulness is a normal part of getting older. So-called senior moments—such as having trouble recalling an acquaintance’s name at a party, misplacing your keys and other small lapses—aren’t necessarily cause for concern. Some people start to recognize changes to their memory as early as their mid-50s. More will notice a change in their 60s. By the time they’re in their 70s, four out of five people report that their memory isn’t as sharp as it was previously, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Study of Aging. Your genes play a role in determining how long you’ll be as sharp as a tack, but adopting a variety of healthy habits can also help you stave off those senior moments.

As you age, physical changes in the brain often affect your memory. The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which both play important roles in learning, memory and planning, shrink in size. The connections that allow brain cells to communicate with one another become weaker, and arteries narrow, reducing blood flow. As a result, you may find that you don’t recall information as quickly or as easily as you once did, that it takes longer to learn new things, or that you forget pieces of information and misplace objects more frequently. You’ll likely also find that you have more difficulty multitasking and that you need to put more effort into concentrating on each task. “These changes don’t mean that the memory machine is broken,” says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Study of Aging. “But you may have to start putting more emphasis and energy into the process of laying down new memories.”

If you’re worried that moments of forgetfulness could be signs of something more serious, consider what you’re forgetting and how often. For instance, misplacing your keys occasionally can be the result of a busy life and a distracted mind. But if you or someone close to you notices a pattern of forgetting occasions that are important to you—say, a lunch date or an upcoming visit from your children—make an appointment to see your doctor. He or she will gen­erally conduct a physical exam, ask questions to check on your memory and problem-solving skills, and screen for more-serious memory problems, such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Also contact your doctor if you notice changes in your memory that start about the same time you begin taking a new medication, or if you also have a medical condition, such as diabetes or thyroid, kidney or liver problems. Either situation could cause memory issues.

Stay in shape

A good workout routine keeps the heart pumping, the muscles strong and the body in shape—and it bulks up your brain. Regular exercise slows the brain’s aging process, increases the size of the portions of the brain that control thinking and memory, and strengthens the connections between brain cells, increasing the brain’s power and processing speed. “A combination of aerobic exercise, strength training and balance exercises offers the best results for the brain,” says Louisa Sylvia, an associate director of psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Try to spend at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, doing various fitness activities, such as jogging, playing sports and lifting weights.

Different types of exercise have different effects on the brain. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, swimming and dancing, increases the capacity of the hippocampus, a memory region of the brain, and improves spatial and verbal memory as well as focus and attention. Strength-training activities, including lifting weights, doing pushups and using resistance bands, work out the part of the brain that is responsible for decision-making, problem solving and multitasking. Pumping iron and other strength exercises also boost levels of a hormone that helps brain cells commun­icate with one another, fortifying the type of memory that helps you remember the names of items and people. Meanwhile, working on your balance and flexibility with gentle stretching strengthens portions of the brain that receive information from other parts of your body.

Exercise your intellect

Just as physical muscles require frequent use to stay strong, your mental muscles need flexing to keep your memory in shape. “To be more intellectually engaged, find a brain-stimulating activity that gets you up and motivated—and do it. The more concentration an activity requires, the greater the potential benefit,” says Dr. Laura Germine, a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Whether you focus on improving a current skill or learning a new skill, pick an activity that’s challenging, says Dr. Denise Park, who researches the effects of new learning on the brain at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for Vital Longevity. Learning a complex skill that offers an ongoing mental challenge, such as quilting or digital photography, has been shown to improve memory, says Park.

Some research suggests that games and activities that involve mental effort, such as crossword puzzles, will only help you hone a specific skill (like filling out the crossword puzzle) and won’t improve your memory or your ability to focus. Other research shows that games and puzzles—think Sodoku—may improve your ability to remember and retrieve information, especially when you are distracted. “The truth is probably somewhere in between,” says Germine. If nothing else, such pastimes can be helpful if they replace those that do not provide brain stimulation, such as watching TV, or if they challenge you and require you to concentrate—for example, a video game that involves problem solving.

As for brain-training games, which have users complete a series of computer-based activities with the goal of learning faster, being more alert or developing a stronger memory, some have been under fire recently. For example, last year the company behind the popular Lumosity brain-training app, which claimed to prevent age-related memory decline, paid $2 million to settle a false advertising case. Before counting on a game to produce memory benefits, see if its claims are backed up by independent studies published in peer-reviewed journals.

Eat a brain-healthy diet

The diet choices you make to help your waistline, your heart and the rest of your body may even go to your head. Take the steaks or extra pats of butter you can’t resist: Such foods, loaded with saturated and trans fats, raise your blood levels of unhealthy cholesterol. Not only does bad cholesterol damage your arteries and put additional strain on your heart, but it also speeds up the formation of sticky protein clusters in the brain, making it more difficult for brain cells to communicate with one another. Rather than load up on foods with harmful fats, substitute those that are high in healthy unsaturated fats, including olive oil, fish and nuts.

Or try adding some Mediterranean influence to your diet. The Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, olive oil, beans, and grains, with moderate amounts of fish, dairy, wine and limited amounts of meat—has long been credited with improving heart health and reducing cancer risk. But it can also improve the health of blood vessels, slowing down brain aging and memory loss. A recent study conducted at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, found that people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet over a three-year period lost less brain volume than those who did not adhere to the diet.

Connect with people

Staying busy and socializing with friends and loved ones can also help keep your memory sharp. Although researchers aren’t certain how socializing changes the brain, many have documented the positive effects that social interaction, close relationships and large social networks have on memory and cognitive function as you age. One recent study published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience journal suggests a busy lifestyle that includes a social calendar with stimulating activities helps maintain the brain’s health and boosts its memory.To get the most from your social interactions, pick activities you’ll enjoy and that will challenge you, and do them with friends (new or old) you enjoy being around. You’ll likely find that socializing makes other memory-healthy behaviors easier to accomplish, because hitting the gym or learning a skill is a lot more fun when you do it with people you like.

Rev up your recall

To boost your memory abilities, try the following learning strategies suggested in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory newsletter.

Simplify. Break down information into parts and tackle each part separately. Remember numbers by dividing them into manageable units. For example, instead of 125833076, think 125-833-076.

Organize. Group information by category. To remember your shopping list, for instance, divide items into fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat.

Link new information to established memories. For example, remember the name of a new person by linking her with someone else you know who has the same name.

Use multiple senses. Try saying new information out loud, writing it down or reading it over.

Engage your imagination. Forming mental pictures of actions can help you remember things. For example, to remember the time of your 3 p.m. doctor’s appointment, picture yourself entering the doctor’s office as the clock strikes three.

Practice. Rehearse new information to embed it in your memory. Repeat names of new people you meet.

For more information about Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory newsletter, check out this link.

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