It’s true the brain changes as we get older – what doesn’t? And a normal part of that is getting a bit more forgetful. In fact by age 19, our ability to solve problems in a novel way starts to decline.
Losing your car keys or forgetting your mother in law’s birthday are examples of normal forgetfulness. It’s getting lost in a familiar place that indicates you might be experiencing a more serious cognitive issue.
But getting dementia or a serious cognitive condition such as Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have to be a normal part of aging. There are a number of strategies that you can employ to keep your mind agile through the decades.
Here are 10 ways to take care of your brain and keep your short-term memory sharp like the proverbial tack.
1. Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet
Researchers found that following the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on healthy fats like olive oil, fish, vegetables and a moderate amount of wine can reduce your risk of dementia by 20 percent over four years. Other brain-loving foods include blueberries walnuts, salmon and broccoli.
2. Enjoy Regular Exercise
Getting a combination of aerobic exercise like tennis, cycling or walking, along with strength training can increase your cognitive function. Even 20 minutes can be effective for keeping your brain agile. And by the way, no one said exercise had to be drudgery, If you like salsa or swing dancing, by all means do that as your exercise. Just be sure to work up a sweat regularly, on average five times a week.
3. Get Enough Sleep
Seven to eight hours is recommended for most adults, but make sure you get enough sleep to awake feeling refreshed. The time we spend sleeping is crucial, since that’s when the brain forms new memories, makes decisions we’ve been mulling, learns new tasks and cleans up toxins. Getting too little sleep increases your risk for health conditions including high blood pressure, obesity and dementia.
4. Learn Something New
Learning a new skill like knitting, how to speak French for a vacation or how to operate the latest tech gadget can be frustrating because it requires brain power. But that struggle is a good thing: learning a new skill is one of the best ways to keep your brain sharp. Researchers at the University of Texas assigned 200 older people to learn something new over a period of three months. Some focused on socializing like watching movies or listening to old songs, while others took up quilting or digital photography for the first time. A control group listened to the radio or did easy puzzles and games at home. They found that people who had the biggest boost to brain function were the ones who learned the most complex new skills — how to use Photoshop and operate a digital camera.
5. Take Up a Musical Instrument
Whether it’s piano or the saxophone, learning to play an instrument gives your brain greater plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to changes and take on new tasks. In fact, researchers have found that musicians have more gray matter than non-musicians — especially in the parts of the brain that handle processing sound and higher-order thinking.
6. Don’t Overuse Prescription Drugs
It’s no surprise that illicit drugs can take a toll on brain functioning. But so can many prescription and over-the-counter medications. A study at the University of Washington found that people who regularly use common drugs like Benadryl, Paxil or Flexeril increased their risk of dementia by 54 percent with just three years of use. The risk grows as we age, since these substances build up in the body and we don’t process them as quickly. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor about alternative medications.
7. Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Binge drinking can cause blackouts, as well as effects that last after you sober up. Long-term heavy drinking can shrink the brain’s frontal lobe, leading to memory problems and impaired thinking. If you do drink, the recommended daily amount is one drink for women and two for men.
8. Quit Smoking
We usually focus on the damage that smoking does to the lungs, or the characteristic wrinkles many smokers have around their mouths. But new research shows that smoking causes thinning of the brain’s cortex, the part where memory, language and thinking are processed. This thinning happens with age, but smoking accelerates it. If you smoke now, please investigate a cessation program to kick the habit.
9. Avoid Head Injuries
Whether it’s from your days as the star quarterback on the college football team, a car accident or taking a tumble on the ski slopes, head injuries can have a devastating effect on brain function. A study found that three years after a concussion, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease increases by more than 40 percent. Improve your balance by taking up yoga or practicing standing on one foot when you have a wall nearby. Always wear a helmet when biking or playing a contact sport.
10. Use All Your Senses
You know how certain smells like cinnamon, chocolate-chip cookies baking or orange blossoms can trigger a vivid memory? That’s because the sense of smell is rooted in the limbic system, the primal part of the brain that also controls taste. Make it a habit to stimulate this part of your brain by seeking out new aromas or naming what you’re smelling and in that glass of pinot noir — is that raspberry, plum or roses? Or if you’re learning a new name or word, try to link it to an aroma or taste to make that memory stronger.