Brain Health & Aging: How to Keep Your Brain Sharp and Avoid Memory Loss
This page outlines tips for maintaining a healthy brain, focusing on actionable things you can do to prevent or slow down age-related memory loss
Lifestyle Habits for a Healthy Brain
As we age, it’s natural that our brains slow down. We find ourselves struggling to recall things we used to know like the backs of our hands. In particular, our short term memory begins to suffer. We forget where we put the keys. We forget about that appointment we had later in the afternoon. It might be frightening, but it’s normal and there are specific, actionable things we can do to slow down and even reverse this process. It involves exercising both our bodies and our brains, and feeding our brains with the right nutrients.
Aside from taking supplements like Prevagen and eating healthy, there are a number of other, lifestyle-related habits you can form to achieve better memory. Studies have found that simply staying active can lead to an increase in brain volume compared to people who are relatively inactive. Staying active is particularly important to executive function like decision-making, as well as memory process. Part of being active but slightly different is exercising. Studies have shown that even low stress workouts, yoga or a brisk walk just a few times a week can be sufficient. And keeping up with the daily chores like cleaning and gardening keep your brain healthy.
Here are a few quick tips to incorporating brain-healthy activities into your life:
- Plan and Organize: Choose your favorite pastime, and make plans to ensure you fit it into your schedule regularly. The simple act of planning ahead and organizing uses parts of your brain that are crucial to protecting against age-related memory loss.
- Find a hobby that gets you into flow and requires concentration and focus. Knitting, needle-point, scrap booking, painting – all these things require intense focus on the task at hand, and that will keep your brain healthy and sharp as you age.
- Exercise your body. Help your brain. Find activities you enjoy that also get yourself moving. Disguise them as workouts. Get out there and dance. Take a hike. Go for a swim. These kinds of activities get your heart pumping and your blood flowing, which in turn keeps your brain from deteriorating.
- Lifelong Learning and Growth: Find hobbies that bring out your curiosity and foster a love of learning. Lifelong learning pursuits, and the pursuit of mastery in a subject area, get you building connections in your brain. The more connections you make, the more associations you’ll create between information in your brain. Keep learning more about what you love. It only makes intuitive sense: the more connections you make between things, the more ways you’ll have to retrieve information when you need it – resulting in less memory loss as you age.
Maintain a Brain Healthy Diet
As we mentioned before, when it comes to brain health, you are what you eat. Certain food contain nutrients that are essential for maintaining your brain and protecting yourself from age-related memory loss. Here are a few ways to ensure you’re eating the right foods:
- Consume antioxidants and flavanoids. These compounds help you build healthy connections between brain cells and you can get them through berries, particularly blueberries. Add blueberries to your yogurt, cereal, or morning smoothie to ensure you’re feeding your brain with the right nutrients to maintain cellular connections.
- Eat your greens. Your mother was on the right track when she encouraged you to eat the green stuff on your plate. Veggies are rich in Vitamin C, and also contain key phytochemicals that are important to stimulate and maintain brain health. Particularly greens in the cabbage family, like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, turnips, and Brussels Sprouts. Mixing these into a salad, or cooking them as their own dishes are great for lunch and dinner. Just be sure not to overcook them and lose out on both nutrients and flavor.
- Stay hydrated: with over 70% of our bodies comprised of H20, the importance of drinking water cannot be overstated. Water is used by the brain which controls everything we do. When we stay hydrated, we not only look and feel younger, we act younger as well – making us more likely to incorporate the habits mentioned above into our daily lives. The guideline is to drink 12 eight-ounce glasses per day. A trick to making water look more appetizing is for it to be cold. Keep a glass by you all day and you’ll find yourself reaching for that age-saving beverage.
- Fats and oils are important, but we need to make sure we’re eating the right, healthy kinds. A fun fact: our brains are only 2% of our body weight, but consume over 20% of the nutrients and oxygen we intake. Making sure we eat the right kinds of fats and oils is crucial to maintaining brain health.
In particular, a few ways we can get these fats and oils into our diets includes incorporating:
- Omega-3 fatty acids: we can get Omega-3 through fish, particularly salmon. According to the research, we should be eating fish high in Omega-3 at least twice per week.
Avocados: Avocados are not only delicious, but they’re high in healthy fats. The fat we obtain from avocados are called monounsaturated fats, and they’re shown to have positive effects on brain function and also in the promotion of healthy blood flow. When our blood is flowing through the body the way we need, it means it’s also getting to the brain – maintaining and preserving brain function and memory.
- Brain-Healthy Oils: Olive oil is not only high in antioxidants, but it’s also a great source of Vitamins E and K – to essential vitamins for a healthy brain. But don’t overdo it. Put some olive oil and vinegar on your salad for lunch. Cook your eggs in olive oil instead of using butter. Be creative, but ensure you’re getting a balanced diet that promotes a healthy brain.
Aside from food and lifestyle habits, exercising your brain, and incorporating them into your routine can help to keep your brain sharp. A few suggestions include:
- Train and expand your associative network. Make connections between words and images. Visualize these connections and you’ll find your recall to improve – or at least not deteriorate as much or as fast.
- Practice recalling the small things. Pay attention to details and try and remember them later on in the day. What were your co-workers wearing today? What was the side dish you ate for lunch and which ingredients made it taste so good? Did you meet someone new today? Try and remember their name and attach it to a face. All these things go into our short-term memory and run the risk of being forgotten. Exercise your short-term memory, and you’ll keep that part of your brain quick and start storing more into long-term memory.
- Engage with the people around you, using different parts of the brain. Have conversations with people. Simple conversations are unpredictable in the direction they’ll go, requiring you to listen and respond in real-time. This kind of “Active Listening” keeps your brain sharp and helps you develop more meaningful relationships. “Passive Listening” does less to stimulate the brain.
- Switch it up. Change your routine every once in a while. Break those bad habits, and try and form new ones. Get out of that subconscious, automatic mode every once-in-a-while and put some thought into the things you’re doing. When we’re not on auto-pilot, we are forced to use our brains and think. We’re forced to exert mental energy and make decisions that we would normally do without thinking. Little changes to things we do everyday are enough to stimulate our brains and keep us sharp as we age.
- Make memories. At the end of life, all you have left are your memories. Not only does actively creating memories help sharpen the brain, as we age, the more positive memories we create, the higher our levels of well-being. Memories don’t only need to form during big, life-changing events. Everyday activities can help in the creation of memories.
- Travel. Related to both making memories and switching it up, traveling to new places is a great way to change your environment, force you out of your comfort zone, create new memories of new places with the people you love, and expand your horizons by learning about and engaging with different people, cultures, and languages.
- Connect. Connection is everything. Keep in touch and get plenty of face-to-face interactions with the people in your life. Really show that you care and bring a sense of curiosity to those encounters. Ask lots of questions, listen to answers, and follow up on those answers in thoughtful ways. Making, maintaining, and developing meaningful connections with the people in our lives is crucial to our well-being. When we have a higher level of well-being, our brains function better.
- Reconnect: Catch up with those lose ties you have, or old friendships that for one reason or another, you let slide. Make a phone call every week to someone you haven’t spoken with in a while to ask how they’re doing; or better yet, plan a Skype call or Facetime so you can actually see how they’re doing. Schedule a time in your calendar to grab a cup of coffee with a person you haven’t seen in a while. There are plenty of ways to stay in touch or regain connection with people who bring joy to your life, and the key here is to talk, listen, and engage with the other person in ways where you show you care about them, and they’re able to reciprocate.
- Have fun with others. Is your life too busy to keep up with your network? If you’re a tennis player, find someone else who also enjoys the sport and play with them once a month. Take an art class with an old friend. Go on bike rides. See your favorite artist perform at a concert. Go to a baseball game with a friend who enjoys it. Plan a beach day, join a sports team, or see a movie. Doing the things you love with others brings more positive emotions into your life, keeps you active, and helps you form positive memories that are meaningful and valuable.
- Keep up with family traditions. Ensuring we don’t lose touch with our loved ones is a great protection against memory loss. Whether it’s celebrating birthdays by simply making a phone call, or planning a family get-together on Thanksgiving. Don’t let the things you used to do as a family fall to the wayside. Cook the foods your grandparents cooked. Attend services during holidays. Have dinner once a week as a family, or plan a monthly game night. Get your brain going by assembling puzzles together. Staying actively engaged with family is so important, and becomes more important as we age.
- Spend time outside. Research shows that even as much as 5 minutes per day outdoors is enough to show a positive difference in your mood, and lower levels of stress hormones called cortisol. It’s important to get out and smell the roses; fresh air can do wonders for our mood and memory. When we’re stressed, our brain virtually shuts down the connections, making us less creative and impacting our ability to retrieve information when we need it. On the flip side, when we aren’t stressed, our connections open up and we’re able to not only recall the connections we already have stored in the brain, but are also better suited to form new connections, benefiting us later in life.