Harvard Women's Health Watch

Preserving and improving memory as we age

Proven approaches include healthful habits and some do-it-yourself strategies.

If you're over 50, you've probably noticed some changes in your ability to remember things. Maybe you've gone into the kitchen and can't remember why, or can't recall a familiar name during a conversation. You may even miss an appointment because it slipped your mind. Memory lapses can occur at any age, but we tend to get more upset by them as we get older because we fear they're a sign of dementia, or loss of intellectual function. Mostly, we fear Alzheimer's disease. The fact is, when significant memory loss occurs among older people, it is not due to aging but to organic disorders, brain injury, or neurological illness.

Studies have shown that you can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia by maintaining good general health habits: staying physically active, getting enough sleep, not smoking, having good social connections, limiting alcohol to one drink a day, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats. (Studies have shown a lower risk of mental decline among people who follow a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats.) For women with certain health conditions, memory problems are less likely to develop if they seek and follow medical advice (see "Care for your health").

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