Healthy Living on a Budget

Exercise Your Brain to Improve Memory in Retirement

Strategies to help retirees recall and remember people, places and things.

When retired professor Darlene Howard taught in the psychology department of Georgetown University, she often had to remember the names of as many as 50 students a semester. So Howard used a memory trick: She created an association with a student's name or face. A student with the last name of Brady might make her think of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The next time she saw the student, she would tap that image to remember his name.

If you struggle to recall a word that's on the tip of your tongue, or have trouble putting names to faces, you may think memory decline is a normal part of aging you have to accept. But you can strengthen certain memory skills, and improve your overall brain health and cognitive function. "There are a lot of ways you can facilitate the health of your brain," says Howard, now age 70. "What we need to do is not get worried so much about the fact we're not remembering something, and instead think of ways we can remember it."

Start with techniques to help you improve specific skills. When meeting someone for the first time, repeat the name when introduced, to make sure you've got it, Howard says. Then create an association to help you remember–and practice it. "Even something ridiculous is good, and it will work," Howard says. Take notes on your phone after the introduction to refer to later.

If you can't recall a word, that's generally because it's a word you don't use that often, says Lise Abrams, a University of Florida psychology professor who has studied word-finding problems for 20 years. But consciously using other words that start with the same syllable as the word you forgot may be helpful in the future. For example, if you intended to use the word denote but couldn't remember it, try frequently using words such as decide or debate, and it may help you recall the missing word the next time around.

Boost Brain Health

Brain training games are widely advertised, but the benefits are limited. Memory games may improve your memory slightly, and language games may boost your language ability a bit, but there's no proof yet of any major changes beyond that, says D.P. Devanand, director of geriatric psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "There simply isn't enough evidence to recommend this strategy as a means to reverse memory impairment and decline," he says.

But research does prove that taking care of your overall brain health helps improve your brain function and memory. A healthy brain actually begins with your heart, Devanand says. Older people sometimes suffer small strokes without realizing it, so stopping smoking, lowering your cholesterol and getting hypertension treated can reduce that risk. "What's good for the heart is good for the brain," he says.

Add in exercise, but an occasional stroll isn't enough. You need to combine aerobic and resistance exercises, such as using weights, Devanand says. Or walk for 45 minutes at least three days a week, and push yourself to go faster. If that's too much, "any exercise or activity is better than none," Howard says.

Being social helps, because social interaction stimulates the brain. Ask a friend to join you on a walk or at the gym. Or consider volunteering for a cause you care about. A recent Johns Hopkins University study showed that seniors who tutored in Baltimore schools had improved brain performance.

Keep your brain active by taking classes to learn new skills or teach yourself to use new technology. Or consider meditating, which can help you focus, a skill that declines with age. And don't panic: You may forget words more often as you age, but it's not a sign your memory is gone. Seek a medical evaluation, including a cognitive performance test, to rule out any major issues. Then practice memory techniques and healthy habits. That name is likely to come back to you eventually.

Most Popular

The 15 Best Stocks for the Rest of 2022
stocks to buy

The 15 Best Stocks for the Rest of 2022

The lesson of the past two years: Be ready for anything. Our 15 best stocks to buy for the rest of 2022 reflect several possible outcomes for the seco…
June 21, 2022
Your Guide to Roth Conversions
Special Report
Tax Breaks

Your Guide to Roth Conversions

A Kiplinger Special Report
February 25, 2021
Retirement Comfort: How to Avoid Running Out of Money
retirement planning

Retirement Comfort: How to Avoid Running Out of Money

When it comes to retirement planning, one thing all of us worry about is whether we will have enough money to last. Financial professionals can help y…
June 25, 2022

Recommended

33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes
retirement

33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes

Even with the federal exemption from death taxes raised, retirees should pay more attention to estate taxes and inheritance taxes levied by states.
June 23, 2022
10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees
retirement

10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees

Moving to a low-tax state in retirement can help make your retirement savings last longer.
June 23, 2022
Taxes in Retirement: How All 50 States Tax Retirees
Tax Breaks

Taxes in Retirement: How All 50 States Tax Retirees

We rated every state, plus the District of Columbia, on how retirees are taxed. Some of the results might surprise you.
June 23, 2022
I’m Retired. Should I Pay Off My Mortgage?
retirement

I’m Retired. Should I Pay Off My Mortgage?

It’s a simple question. The right answer for you could depend on this: Where would you pull the money from to do it?
June 20, 2022