A growing body of research suggests that adopting certain lifestyle habits can bolster the brain and keep your memory sharp while you age. That said, as the years accumulate, keeping your brain sharp gets more challenging.
“The speed with which we process information tends to decline with age,” explains Brent A. Funk, Psy.D., neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health. “That may show up as a memory problem because people aren’t able to absorb information as it comes in.” The good news, however? “Memory loss isn’t a ‘normal’ part of aging,” says Funk.
Like our other organs, the brain benefits most from maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. Want to stay sharp into your golden years and beyond? Try these 4 strategies:
1. Get moving. Exercise increases blood flow to every organ in the body, including your noggin. In fact, studies suggest that cardiovascular exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) may help you maintain your ability to think clearly, multi-task and plan ahead.
Quick Tip: To improve the brain benefits of exercise, select an activity that requires you to think while you’re moving, such as playing tennis, dancing, or practicing yoga or tai chi.
2. Eat healthy. A diet composed mostly of whole foods is as good for your brain as it is for your heart. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in some fish, help reduce inflammation and enhance blood flow to the brain. Same goes for monounsaturated fats like those found in olive oil and avocado, which reduce plaque build-up in arteries. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables appear to slow down memory loss.
Quick Tip: Stock your fridge with standout brain-boosting foods: fatty fish (such as salmon, herring and mackerel), leafy green veggies, nuts and berries. In fact, studies consistently show that following a Mediterranean-style diet—fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil, a daily glass of red wine—has brain-boosting benefits.
3. Challenge your mind. Brainteasers like crossword puzzles, word games, and even an intense game of chess get a lot of air time, but according to Funk, the best brain-boosting activities are those that take you out of your comfort zone and present completely novel challenges.
Quick Tip: Learn a new language, pick up a musical instrument or plan a trip someplace completely new with a good friend. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you enjoy so you’re more apt to stick with it.
4. Become a social butterfly. A strong social network is a major key to brain health. “Humans are social creatures,” says Funk. “Areas of the brain respond specifically to social interactions because they require a lot of different cognitive processes all at once.” Making friends as you get older is especially important since it not only enhances brain power, it also seems to ward off depression, which is not good for brain function.
Quick Tip: While it’s great to get involved in the local senior center, make a point to seek out interactions with people from younger generations. Developing friendships with people in different age groups may increase the challenge to your brain since it requires you to tailor your language to the appropriate age.
“As people become more aware of the changes that occur with aging, there is more anxiety about whether their memory is working, but everyone’s memory is fallible,” says Funk. You may have to take notes, keep a detailed calendar or use your smart phone to log in reminders, but that doesn’t mean your memory is on the fritz.
Problems tend to arise when memory difficulties begin to interfere with your daily life. So don’t fret if you went to grocery store and forgot to purchase one of the items on your mental list. But if you forgot why or if you went to the store, it’s time to check in with a health professional.
What’s good for your heart is good for your head, so adopt these healthy habits:
- Don’t smoke.
- Sleep 7-8 hours a night.
- Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check
- Eat a low-fat, healthy diet.
- Get plenty of exercise.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Get blood sugar levels (and diabetes, if you have it) under control.
Dr. Brent Funk is a neuropyschologist seeing patients in the Henry Ford Department of Behavioral Health at One Ford Place in Detroit.