Worried about fading brain power?
If you’re older than 27, you have good reason.
That’s the age when cognitive skills start to decline, according to new University of Virginia research. But while some changes in thinking and memory are inevitable as we age, the good news is that lifestyle seems to be able to blunt those effects — and keep many minds working sharply well into old age.
That’s reassuring, given headlines from the Alzheimer’s Association’s new annual report showing that every 70 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s (the most common form of dementia). Debilitating memory loss doesn’t happen to everyone, though. Learn what you can do to preserve yours.memory .
Booster #1. Take the stairs
Exercise benefits your head as much as the rest of your body, a growing number of studies indicate. Overall cardiorespiratory fitness also lowers the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems — all known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Theories on why that’s so range from improved blood flow to the brain to less brain shrinkage.
Experts recommend making regular aerobic workouts part of your routine. Failing that, it appears that even small efforts add up. So avoid elevators. Park at the far end of the parking lot. Start by walking around your block in the evenings, and add a few minutes more each day.
Memory Booster #2: Change your wallpaper
When doing routine things, the brain runs on autopilot. Novelty, on the other hand, literally fires up the brain as new data creates and works new neural pathways.
So shake up what you see and do every day: If your computer screen background is “invisible” to you, run a program that mixes it up every day or every hour. Take a different route home from work. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. Buy, borrow, or download a book that makes you think about new ideas.
Memory Booster #3. Steal some zzz’s by daylight
It’s while you’re sleeping that your brain sorts, consolidates, and stores memories accumulated during the day — that’s why eight hours at night is so valuable. But a mere six-minute nap is as valuable as a full night’s sleep to short-term recall, according to German research. And a 90-minute nap has been shown to speed up the process that helps the brain consolidate long-term memories.
Memory Booster #4. Take a mental “photograph”
Memories aren’t just stored in one spot in the brain; bits of data are processed and stored in different areas. To help make the memory of an incident last, take a “snapshot” of it while you’re in the moment, using all your senses. Look around and think about what you see. Notice colors and textures. What do you smell? If you’re eating or drinking (or kissing), what’s the taste?
This “mental camera” trick can help you hang onto a happy memory longer. But it can also help you remember where you parked your car.
Memory Booster #5. Eat less
After only 12 weeks, healthy volunteers (average age 60) who reduced their daily calories by 30 percent scored 20 percent better on memory tests, University of Munster (Germany) researchers reported in January. The possible reason: decreased levels of insulin, created when the body processes food, and of the inflammation-associated molecule C-reactive protein. Both factors are linked to improved memory function.
The people in the study were cautioned not to consume fewer than 1,200 calories a day. If cutting back on your diet by nearly a third seems too daunting, focus on eating less fat, meat, and dairy products. Earlier this year, Columbia University Medical Center researchers reported that in a long-term study of more than 1,300 participants, those with the highest adherence to a Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, legumes, fish, and monounsaturated oils (like olive oil) but low in fat, beef, and dairy — had the lowest risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
Memory Booster #6. Try a “brain-training” game — or join a “brain gym”
The science is promising, if not conclusive, as to whether so-called brain-fitness software can actually improve memory. A study in the April 2009 *Journal of the American Geriatric Society* shows that people over 65 who used a computerized cognitive training program for an hour a day, over a period of eight weeks, improved memory and attention more than a control group.
Memory Booster #7. Spend some time online
Neuroscientist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Memory & Aging Center and author of *iBrain*, says searching the Web is a bit like using a brain-training course. His researchers used MRI to measure brain activity in Web users ages 55 to 76; the net-savvy users showed twice as much brain activity, especially regarding decision making.
Memory Booster #8. Stop and sip a cuppa
Green and black teas have a protective effect on memory, possibly by influencing enzymes in the brain. The caffeine sparks concentration, too. And people who drink moderate amounts of coffee at midlife — as many as three to five cups — have lower odds of developing dementia in late life, Finnish and French researchers say.
Another benefit: Taking a coffee or tea break in your day (or three times a day) is a good opportunity for destressing.Memory
Booster #9. See a doctor if you feel depressed
Maybe it’s “just a mood.” But untreated depression is common and can impair memory. Talk therapy and/or antidepressant medication can resolve the problem. Two red flags worth mentioning to a physician: a loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure and a persistent sense of hopelessness.
People at higher risk for depression include caregivers of older people and those who have a family history of depression.
Memory Booster #10. Take the “multi” out of your tasking
Especially when they’re trying to learn something new, people remember less well later if they were multitasking while learning, UCLA researchers have shown. If, for example, you’re studying while listening to the radio, your memory recall may be dependent on the music to help you later retrieve the information during the test — except, of course, that you can’t usually replicate the same circumstances (like music during a test).
Try to learn something new — reading a contract or directions, copying a skill — when you can give it your full concentration. Cut out distractions like the TV in the background or pausing every few seconds when you hear the “ding” of your e-mail or text-message inbox.