Have you ever forgotten where you left your keys? Been unable to recall where you placed your wallet? Woken up late because it slipped your mind to set the alarm on your cellphone or clock?
None of these circumstances are cause for alarm, says Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
It’s important to keep in mind that most people experience memory loss at some point, Williams says. Forgetting where you put something or not being able to immediately remember the name of someone you don’t interact with routinely is common.
“However, as we age, more consistent and sometimes severe memory declines can begin to take hold — forcing the person experiencing them to alter their way of living to cope,” he says. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are among the age-related memory disorders that can have a debilitating effect on a person’s quality of life, and can even shorten that life.
While some memory decline is inevitable with aging, there are steps people can take to protect their ability to recall, says Dr. Dylan Wint, director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “The more that we do to protect our brains, the more resistant they become to the kinds of things that can affect it as we age, including degenerative diseases,” Wint says.
This may even apply to people who have Alzheimer’s disease. “A brain that has been treated better will likely function better, even if pathology is there,” Wint says. “The symptoms can vary from person to person, and a lot depends on how healthy an individual’s brain is.”
A meta-analysis suggests that a dozen factors can help prevent and mitigate dementia, says Dr. Scott Kaiser, a board-certified geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
The research, published in 2020 in The Lancet, identified 12 “potentially modifiable” risk factors. “Together the 12 modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias, which consequently could theoretically be prevented or delayed,” according to the report.
The 12 risk factors are:
— Less education.
— Physical inactivity.
— Low social contact.
— Air pollution.
Fortunately, “we don’t have to accept devastating memory problems as a fact of life as we get older,” Williams says. “There’s plenty we can do right now to help maintain our memory function and enhance it. The even better news is that much of what we can do that will improve our brain health is also good for the whole body — a win-win,” Williams says.
[See: Best Foods for Brain Health.]
Here are five strategies for protecting your memory:
— Exercise consistently.
— Use your senses.
— Sleep well.
Exercise consistently. Research suggests that physical exercise is good for the brain and memory. A meta-analysis published in 2020 in the Journal of Aging Research suggests that physical activity, “notably multi-modal and mind-body exercise, offers benefit to cognition in older individuals.”
Adequate blood and oxygen supply to the brain helps keep our memories sharp, Williams says. Physically active people have a lower risk of mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “I often remind my patients that the brain loves movement,” Williams says. “But not all exercise is created equal. Keep in mind, only moving your body may not confer maximum benefit when it comes to brain health.” To get the most brain-boosting bang for your buck, aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of heart-pumping cardiovascular exercise most days a week. Be sure to check with your health care provider before staring a new exercise regimen.
Some options include:
— Power walking.
Learn new things. Many physicians who deal with the brain and memory believe that advanced education helps keep a person’s memory healthy. Challenge your brain with mental exercise by learning new things, Williams says. You don’t have to confine this learning to “formal education” inside a classroom either. Any new skill or way of doing something helps the brain grow. Scientists believe that challenging our minds with mental exercise can help maintain the health of brain cells and stimulate them to communicate better with each other — all essential processes for memory to function correctly.
Use your senses. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, which are unique in how they transmit information, all send signals to the brain via neural pathways. The brain then interprets those signals to help us make sense of the world around us, Williams says. Being able to combine sensory information helps boost memory, researchers believe.
Sleep well. Though it might seem like a contrary concept, one of the most fundamental ways to keep your brain functioning correctly and sharply is to turn it off for seven to nine hours every day, Williams says. Powering down on a nightly basis allows the brain to heal and restore itself, clearing toxins that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia types. Your brain does its essential “housekeeping” via memory consolidation during your body’s deep sleep state. For these reasons, a consistent lack of quality sleep can associate with a steeper memory decline as a person gets older. Prioritize quality sleep as you would a healthy diet and daily exercise.
Eat a healthy diet. Foods high in saturated fats, like red meat, butter and dairy products are associated with higher risk for degeneration of the body and the brain, Wint says. Consuming a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains is associated with “better cognitive function” in older people, according to research published in 2017 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in:
— Whole grains.
The association between the Mediterranean diet and cognitive health may be because the eating regimen promotes better blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation and may even provide important nutrients and building blocks for brain cells and blood vessels, Wint says.
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Update 06/17/21: This article was previously published and has been updated with new information.