Getting more sleep, exercising, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress contribute to a healthier brain and better recall.
Slight changes in memory and thinking skills are common in older age. Maybe you can’t recall a particular name or word, or you often forget where you put your keys or glasses. These little shifts in cognition are a normal part of aging and usually nothing to worry about.
Yet they’re powerful reminders that we need to do everything possible to ward off cognitive decline and dementia. And some of these strategies are the same lifestyle habits that benefit other aspects of health, including heart, blood vessel, and gut health.
Get more sleep
We need at least seven hours of sleep each night to help the body rest and the brain conduct important duties. During sleep, the brain’s glymphatic system flushes out waste produced by the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease–related toxins (such as the protein amyloid-beta).
"Sleep is also the time when your brain consolidates and stores information you’ve learned in long-term memory. If you don’t get enough sleep, these functions may be impaired," says Dr. Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at VA Boston Healthcare System and co-author of the book Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory.
Eat a healthy diet
A healthy diet may help ward off chronic inflammation (which may fuel Alzheimer’s disease) and a type of cognitive decline that results from silent "mini" strokes. These strokes block blood flow to the brain without any symptoms, slowly killing off brain cells. "Over time, you can have dozens or hundreds of these tiny strokes, with damage accumulating in the brain," Dr. Budson notes.
To protect yourself, generally avoid processed and sugary foods and animal fats (other than from fish): they’re associated with poor cardiovascular health. Opt instead for a Mediterranean-style diet, which is tied to lower risks for cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fish, as well as moderate amounts of poultry and dairy.
Specific foods linked to less cognitive decline include dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach); fruits (strawberries, blueberries); and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, walnuts).
Aerobic exercise — the kind that gets your heart and lungs pumping, like brisk walking — is considered a magic elixir for most aspects of health, including cognition.
Exercise promotes the release of a powerful molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which repairs brain cells, strengthens their connections, promotes new brain cell growth, and enlarges the size of your hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in the storage and retrieval of memories). Exercise also increases blood flow to your brain and may protect the brain’s system for flushing out toxins.
Dr. Budson recommends 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise at least five days per week, as long as your doctor approves. And don’t worry if you’ve never been a workout enthusiast. "Starting a vigorous exercise program in midlife has been shown to delay the onset of dementia by almost 10 years. So whether you are 29 or 92, it’s a great age to start exercising," Dr. Budson says.
Try these techniques to help you remember
- Say information out loud as soon as you learn it, such as a person’s name or a development in the news. Say it aloud again later that day and even the next day.
- Break strands of numbers or letters into chunks. For example, instead of 1214117563, think of 12-14-11-75-63.
- Enter appointments into a calendar as soon as you arrange them, not later on.
- Create acronyms to remember lists of information. For example: a grocery list of berries, apples, beans, chicken, almonds, and bread might be BABCAB.
- Create absurd images to remember your errand list. For example, if you have to go to the post office, buy some groceries, and drop off clothes at the dry cleaner, imagine you’re wearing all of the clothes at once, pushing a grocery cart full of mail.
- Stow important items like keys and glasses in the same place every day, so you’ll always know where they are.
- Keep pads and pens handy wherever you might need to jot down information: your kitchen, living room, bedside, or even your car’s glove compartment.
Manage stress with mindfulness
Stress makes it harder to retrieve information stored in the brain. "When you’re stressed, your brain prioritizes your ability to figure out what’s going on and what you need to do," Dr. Budson explains. "It de-prioritizes processes that would allow you to rapidly retrieve your knowledge and memories."
One way to manage stress is by practicing mindfulness, a type of meditation that helps you learn to control your focus by observing the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you’re experiencing.
Sensory observations, by the way, help you record and call up memories. "As you put down your smartphone when you get home, for example, take a moment to focus on what you’re doing, how you’re feeling, and where you are," Dr. Budson advises.
"Later, if you can’t remember where you placed your phone, think of the images and feelings you experienced when you last had it. You’ll remember the moment and likely get your phone back."
Image: © ajr_images/Getty Images
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