Two ways to stay mentally sharp

Regular physical activity helps keep your heart, lungs, and muscles in shape and can stave off the effects of aging. In much the same way, exercising your brain can help keep your mind sharp and your memory intact. Here are two ways to activate your brain.

Keep busy and engaged

The MacArthur Foundation Study on Successful Aging, a long-term study of aging in America, found that education level was the strongest predictor of mental capacity as people aged. The more education, the more likely an individual was to maintain his or her memory and thinking skills. Other research has shown that people who held jobs that involved complex work, such as speaking to, instructing, or negotiating with others, had a lower risk of memory loss (dementia) than people whose jobs were less intellectually demanding.

It probably isn't the years of formal education or the type of occupation that benefits memory. Instead, these are likely stand-ins for a lifelong habit of learning and engaging in mentally challenging activities.

Intellectual enrichment and learning stimulate the brain to make more connections. The more connections, the more resilient the brain. That's how a lifelong habit of learning and engaging in mentally challenging activities — like learning a new language or craft — can help keep the brain in shape.

Stay connected

Establishing and maintaining close ties with others is another way to maintain mental skills and memory. There are several ways that social engagement may do this. Social interaction and mentally engaging activities often go hand in hand (think volunteering or tutoring school kids). Social relationships can also provide support during stressful times, reducing the damaging effects that stress can have on the brain.

Social support can come from relationships with family members, friends, relatives, or caregivers, as well as from a religious community or other organized group.

Meaningful, socially engaging activities may prove especially helpful. In a study conducted with the Baltimore Experience Corps, volunteers were assigned to either a waitlist (control group) or a group that helped elementary school children during class and library time. Early results suggested that participants who remained engaged in the program for many months improved their executive function and memory.

For more on boosting your memory and diagnosing memory problems, buy Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.