As we grow older, we tend to worry about our memory and thinking. We hear so much about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, and chances are we have friends and loved ones who have been touched by one of these conditions. Some people even believe that memory loss is inevitable—that they will surely become “senile” in their later years.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth for most of us. Sharpness of memory varies from individual to individual. Genes are a factor—by some accounts, about 30 percent of our memory health is hereditary. But the other two-thirds of memory wellness might well be within our control, say experts. There are steps we can take to maintain a healthy memory.
- Exercise your mind and memory. Mental stimulation encourages new connections between brain cells. “Use it or lose it” isn’t just a cliché when it comes to memory health. Brain experts tell us to give our brains a workout with challenging activities. Learning something new is especially good. Take up an instrument, learn a foreign language, join a club, volunteer, do a difficult puzzle each day. Passive activities, such as watching TV, don’t offer the same benefits. You can also “exercise” your memory using visualization and concentration. And memory aids—from sticky notes to smartphone reminders—can pick up where our memory leaves off.
- Exercise your body, too! Aerobic exercise has been found to ward off Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other memory-damaging conditions. It helps us avoid obesity, which is also bad for brain health. Recent research also shows that muscle-strengthening exercise helps the brain. And relaxation exercises, such as tai chi and yoga, are also showing promise. Talk to your healthcare provider about an exercise program that is right for you.
- Take care of your all-around health. The more we know about cognitive wellness, the more we realize that brain health can be negatively impacted by heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, kidney disease and a number of other disorders. Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. And ask for a review of your medications; recent studies implicate certain drugs in raising the risk of dementia.
- Eat a brain-healthy diet. We can choose foods that help protect memory. Avoid cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats. Instead, choose fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Take a multivitamin if your healthcare provider recommends it—but don’t take megadoses that could be toxic.
- Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Many substances found in cigarette smoke damage the brain and impair memory. And while some studies suggest drinking in moderation might actually be beneficial, having more than a drink or two per day can be toxic to the brain.
- Get enough sleep and seek treatment for sleep disorders. You’ve probably noticed that when you don’t get enough good quality sleep, it is harder to concentrate the next day. And did you know that while we’re sleeping, our brain is busy converting short-term memories into those that are retained? Neurologists also tell us that harmful waste material is cleansed from our brain as we sleep.
- Lower your stress level and seek help for depression. Stress and depression cause chemical changes in the brain that can be so severe that a person’s family or physician mistakenly suspects Alzheimer’s or other dementia—and in addition, they do raise the risk of Alzheimer’s. Talk with your healthcare provider if you feel stressed or depressed. Counseling, meditation and other relaxation techniques can all help.
- Protect against head injury. A lot of people who worry about Alzheimer’s disease forget that head injuries are another major cause of memory loss. A head injury can result in catastrophic damage to the brain and memory. Always use your seatbelt, and if you are a cyclist, wear a helmet. And protect against falls—especially at home, where most serious fall injuries take place.
- Have your hearing checked. Studies suggest that older adults with moderate to severe hearing loss may be at higher risk of developing dementia. This may be due to the stressfulness of social isolation, and also to the “exhaustion of cognitive reserve”—our brains have to work much harder when we can’t hear. Hearing loss is often preventable, and hearing aids and other technologies can help seniors improve their hearing.
- Have regular dental checkups. Tooth loss and gum disease make it harder to eat a healthy diet, and can be a factor in social isolation. And experts now believe that the bacteria and inflammation caused by gum disease and linked to dementia. Talk to your dentist if arthritis or other problems make it hard to care for your teeth and gums.
If you’re experiencing memory lapses, or if you just find yourself fretting about memory problems, share your concerns with your doctor. Stress can really work a number on our memory—so stressing out about our memory is an ironic cycle we want to avoid! Then you can relax, knowing you’re doing everything you can to keep your memory strong.