By: Kristy Borowik, Contributing Writer to Trilogy Life Magazine
With age comes wisdom and perspective – and as we’ve all experienced from time to time, it can also bring along the occasional bout of “where did Ipark the car /put my keys / leave my glasses again?” It’s only natural to experience mild forgetfulness from time to time, since, as we get older, changes occur in all parts of the body – including the brain. The good news is that there are simple steps we can take to sharpen our minds and maintain our memory as we age. In fact, many healthy adults find that regular mental exercise leads to a significant improvement in areas of mental ability, such as vocabulary, over time.
Read on for six smart tips to protect your memory and keep your mind as sharp as a tack.
Stay Sharp Tip #1: Socialize
If you’ve been looking for an excuse to call up an old college roommate, have the neighbors over for a barbecue, or plan a weekend away with your closest friends, look no further. Any one of these activities will play a role in keeping your mind sharp. This is because social interaction is a key component of keeping your brain engaged. Studies have shown that people who regularly socialize, especially through conversation, maintain their memory twice as well as those who do not socialize regularly. Talking to others, especially new people, stimulates areas of the brain known for controlling memory.
Quick Tip: Take full advantage of this memory-boosting activity by pairing socialization with a fun learning activity. Join a book club, take dancing or quilting lessons, or travel to foreign lands with friends.
Stay Sharp Tip #2: Eat a Healthy Diet
Eating a balanced diet is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, including your brain health. Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet—fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, red wine in moderation, and very little red meat—reduces dementia and memory loss, according to Dr. James Galvin, director of the Pearl Barlow Center for Memory Evaluation and Treatment at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
Cutting back on sugary drinks and overly processed foods can also protect your mental health. Sugary drinks can increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease by contributing to the build-up of brain plaque. The refined white sugar found in many processed foods spikes insulin levels when digested. This causes inflammation, which has been linked to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A diet primarily composed of lean proteins, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables keeps blood sugar stable and prevents insulin spikes.
Another way to protect the health of your brain is with omega-3s (found in fish, eggs, and other sources) and antioxidants (found in fruits and vegetables). Omega-3s and antioxidants protect your memory because they prevent inflammation – and as an added benefit, they can also prevent high cholesterol. If you cannot get enough omega-3s and antioxidants in your diet, talk with your doctor about adding supplements such as fish oil, DHA, beta-carotene, vitamins B6, B12, C, and E, and folic acid. These vitamins help produce healthy red blood cells, which oxygenate the brain and protect against nerve cell damage.
Quick Tip: Adding turmeric (a yellow spice typically found in curry dishes) to your diet will help you get the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties you need for optimal brain health. Spice up your dinner menu with a recipe featuring turmeric, or mix half a teaspoon of the spice with hot water for a brain-boosting tea.
Stay Sharp Tip #3: Use Your Brain
The old adage “use it or lose it” applies to your memory and your brainpower, so it is important to exercise your brain regularly. How can you flex your mental muscles? Play word games, complete crossword puzzles, or engage in any activity that makes you think. Learn something new, such as a foreign language, an instrument, or a new style of dance. Complete a simple task—like brushing your teeth—with your non-dominant hand. Anything that challenges your brain in a different way and keeps it active and nimble will help prevent cognitive decline.
Quick Tip: Each day, trade one hour that you would normally spend watching television (which tends to stimulate your brain about as much as staring at a blank wall) with one hour of surfing the Internet and reading up on topics that interest you. The University of California, Los Angeles has discovered that online research may stimulate the frontal lobe, which controls short-term memory, as well as the neural circuits involved in decision-making and visual and spatial control.
Stay Sharp Tip #4: Exercise Regularly
Remember that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain. This is especially true regarding exercise, which is necessary to increase the blood flow—and the oxygen and glucose—to your brain. In fact, the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory suggests that you can learn new words 20 percent faster after vigorous exercise as compared to after a low-intensity workout.
Quick Tip: If you need some extra motivation to get moving, find a friend who is willing to be your “fitness buddy.” If you have plans to meet someone for a brisk walk or a game of tennis, you’re far less likely to skip out on this activity. Plus, you’ll reap the brain-boosting benefits of both exercise and socialization in one enjoyable activity.
Stay Sharp Tip #5: Stay Positive
Staying positive is good for your overall wellbeing. Research suggests that negative people and those prone to stress are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, as stress interrupts areas of the brain responsible for regulating memory. Try to take time every day to de-stress. Read a book, go for a walk, talk to friends, or take a yoga class.
Quick Tip: If the thought of finding the time to de-stress each day is stressing you out, realize that you can work this important activity into something that you already have on your to-do list. Try playing a soothing CD while you’re commuting to work or performing tasks around the house. Music has an amazing ability to soothe a stressed and scattered mind.
Stay Sharp Tip #6: Get Some Zzzzs
Sleep increases your brainpower and helps improve your memory. Without regular, adequate sleep, the brain cannot retain the ability to remember times, places, and events. This is because sleep gives the brain a chance to organize thoughts and archive memories. Sleep is also the way your body recharges your brain. When you sleep, your body repairs itself. Without sleep, you brain will not have a chance to repair any damaged cells, tissue, or neural pathways. Aim for eight hours every night.
Quick Tip: Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet to ensure that the sleep that you’re getting is quality sleep. Make sure your bedroom is well ventilated and at a consistently cool temperature. Lowering the thermostat aligns your sleep environment with your body’s internal temperature, which naturally lowers during the night. Turn off the television, which is over-stimulating and exposes your body to bright lights that could confuse your internal clock at bedtime. Also, keep your bedroom quiet and peaceful by using a fan or white-noise machine to block out noises that might disrupt your sleep.