We often don’t realize exactly what we can do to safeguard our brain health as we get older, including significantly lowering our risks for diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. Here are the top 10 ways, and they might just surprise you.
1. Take a Walk.
Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise (the kind where you can keep up but can’t keep up a conversation) boosts our daily intellectual performance and significantly lowers our risk for dementia. Some studies have suggested that regular exercise can reduce that risk by up to 38 percent. Studies suggest that just walking at a vigorous pace at least 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week, will do the trick.
2. Lose that Spare Tire.
A brain-healthy diet supports everyday memory and can protect us from chronic medical conditions that increase our dementia risk. Also, studies have shown that maintaining a healthy weight with a low ratio of belly fat can significantly lower our risk for a memory disorder, even beginning in middle age. Stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet, maintain an appropriate weight, and moderate your intake of alcohol and caffeine.
3. Follow Your Doctor’s Orders.
Staying on top of your medical care is key for addressing issues that affect memory. Managing chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes can significantly reduce our risk for stroke and dementia. Also, taking care of medical issues such as hearing or vision loss can make a tremendous difference in our ability to learn new information. Find out if your medications may be making it harder for you to remember. Talk with your doctor about your concerns, and see if any necessary adjustments can be made.
4. Get Your Zzzzz’s.
Lifestyle choices we make daily, from how much sleep we get to how stressed we feel and what risks we take — such as whether to wear a helmet when we ride a bike or ski — impact our daily memory performance and brain health. Emotional distress — anxiety, feeling blue — can also affect our everyday abilities and may even increase our risk for memory impairment. Want to live better for your brain? Lead a brain-healthy lifestyle: Get a good night’s sleep, avoid risky behaviors, and don’t ignore emotional upsets. A leading study on successful aging found that folks who aged well were more emotionally resilient than others.
5. Play Pac-Man.
As we grow older, we can experience changes in our everyday intellectual skills which commonly affect our abilities to stay focused, think quickly, multitask and learn new information. Want to stay sharp no matter what your age? Play games against the clock. Timed activities force us to pay attention, work fast and think nimbly. Research shows that training in these skills can help us stay more effective at them, no matter what our age.
6. Learn How to Remember.
Studies have long supported the use of task-specific memory strategies when it comes to remembering such things as passwords, directions and names. For example, researchers at the University of Alabama found that using such strategies not only significantly improved recall but that those gains in performance held for more than two years. Learn simple strategies to enhance your daily recall, such as making a connection between something you are learning (like the name “Florence”) and something you already know (such as the city of Florence, Italy). Don’t forget those datebooks and to-do lists — memory tools are essential for keeping track of the things we have to do.
7. Get Schooled.
Research shows that staying intellectually engaged over our lifetimes can significantly lower our risk for memory impairment, in some studies by as much as 63 percent. Intellectual engagement offers us opportunities to socialize and supports emotional well-being, activities which in themselves are important to better brain health. Look for activities out of your comfort zone — if you like to read, try a pottery class. Also, look for little ways to “change up” your brain’s routine, such as brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand, or taking a new route to work.
8. Go Out with the Gang.
Staying social has been shown to potentially cut your risk for memory impairment in half — that’s a pretty powerful reason to get away from the TV and out the door. In addition, social situations offer a great challenge for our everyday thinking. Keeping up our end of the conversation gets us to stay focused, think fast and be nimble with our neurons. Look for ways to get out informally with friends, as well as other ways to engage through your community or other resources.
9. Get a Job.
Working or volunteering can improve your daily intellectual performance. You get a good brain workout on the job, which offers you the chance to engage both mentally and socially. What you may not know is that more complex work settings, such as those that require you to supervise others, have been associated with a reduced risk for dementia later in life. In addition, continuing to work or volunteer gives us a sense of purpose, which researchers at Rush Medical Center in Chicago recently found may protect us from memory impairment.
10. Practice the Power of Positive Thinking.
If you want to remember better, believe that you can. Self-perception can impact performance. If a baseball player thinks he’ll never hit it out of the park, chances are he never will. In that same vein, if you are convinced your memory is lousy, it probably will be. Studies have shown that our memory self-belief impacts how well we do on tests of memory ability. In addition, what we think about ourselves can make a difference in how motivated we are to even try to remember something. Practice the power of positive thinking, and believe in your memory. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
Dr. Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized expert in memory fitness training and brain health. She recently collaborated with the editors of Prevention magazine on the book, “Brainpower Game Plan: Food, Moves, and Games to Clear Brain Fog, Boost Memory, and Age-Proof Your Mind in 4 Weeks.”