As we get older, our memories start to slip. We forget where we put our car keys and can’t remember what we were supposed to buy at the grocery store. It happens to everyone.
Still, memory loss is not something we should take lightly. Keeping your brain strong throughout life can help you stay healthy as you age. It’s also important in preventing diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Strengthening your brain’s function isn’t as difficult as you might think. I asked Jessica Langbaum, PhD and principal scientist for the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, for her advice on improving memory. Here’s what she had to say.
Whether or not “brain games” have a positive effect on memory loss prevention is a contested topic in the medical world. Unless they are based on scientific findings, a phone app or computer game probably won’t help improve overall brain function – it will only strengthen your ability to perform tasks associated with that game.
However, a good ol’ crossword puzzle or game of Scrabble or Sudoku may be just what the doctor ordered. That’s because they are similar to the types of games that were developed in labs by doctors specifically for brain research, says Langbaum.
“I like to stress that people should try new things,” she adds. “If you’re really good at crosswords, try something different. It’s almost as if you’re exercising your muscles. If you’re doing the same exercise over and over, your body gets used to it, and the impact isn’t the same. It’s good to present your brain with new challenges.”
So when it comes to brain games, it’s not so much the act of playing that’s good for memory – it’s the practice of teaching your mind a new skill.
As it turns out, having a tight circle of friends isn’t great just for your social life – it’s important to your health, too. Being socially active helps keep your brain sharp.
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but it most likely has to do with the fact that friends provide emotional support, help bring meaning to everyday life and, well, make you laugh. Plus, think about all of the healthy debates you’ve had with your pals over the years about movies and politics. These intellectual conversations keep you on your toes.
Again, Langbaum emphasizes the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. Putting yourself in new social situations works out your brain muscles. In particular, Langbaum says that volunteering benefits memory and brain ability – helping out in a classroom, teaching kids how to read or write. You’re thinking strategically and interacting with people. It’s a win-win.
Your brain controls every one of your bodily functions, so you want to make sure it’s getting all of the nutrients it needs to stay strong. The four most important elements in your brain’s “diet” are glucose for energy, fatty acids like omega-3 to strengthen the synapses, amino acids for connecting its neurotransmitters and antioxidants to regulate stress and protect brain cells.
So what are some of those brain-boosting foods? Eggs, for starters, which are rich in protein and can improve overall cognitive performance. Healthy carbohydrates like oats are good, too, because they provide glucose that fuels your brain. And then there are lentils for Vitamin B, flaxseed because of its healthy fat content, walnuts for antioxidants and omega-3s and beets to increase blood flow to the brain.
Really, the benefits of exercise are endless. When it comes to cognitive function, exercise is healthy because it increases blood flow to the brain and releases chemicals that improve your mind’s ability to concentrate.
Frequent activity also increases the brain’s levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are the chemicals responsible for regulating your mood. Deficiencies or low levels of serotonin and dopamine are what cause mental conditions like anxiety and depression, so you want to keep those levels high!
Working out also boosts your energy and immune system. It makes you feel confident, and enhances decision-making, higher thinking and learning abilities.