Have you ever frantically searched for your phone—using the light on your phone? It’s embarrassing for sure, but that and other things—forgetting a word or missing an appointment —aren’t signs that you’re on the road to dementia. In fact, we shouldn’t accept that our memory will get worse and worse after middle age, because there’s a body of research saying otherwise.
While many things about our memory are outside of our control—genetics and aging for starters—we can tweak our recall ability through lifestyle choices. Just because we are experiencing normal, age-related memory decline doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.
Having a higher expectation of our memory skills as we age helps us engage in more of the very things that maintain recall. Studies show that in cultures where the older population is not stereotyped as being forgetful, such as in China, people score better on memory tests. In other words, folks there aren’t conditioned to give in to the idea that aging and memory loss go hand in hand, so they naturally put forth more effort into staying mentally engaged.
What are those activities and factors that can grease the wheels of our memory machinery? The same things that help lower our risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and depression: exercising, eating healthfully, getting good sleep, socializing, and challenging our mind. In addition, there are several memory tricks that people of all ages can learn that can help.
The magic of exercise
Of all the ways we can protect and enhance our memory, exercise may be the most potent. We’ve all felt the uptick in focus and mood after a sweat session. But physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, also has long-lasting memory benefits.
Regular exercise increases the volume of the two brain areas that are most important in memory: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These are also two regions that are among the most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and aging. “Exercise is the only intervention we know of that will combat the decrease of volume of these areas,” says New York University neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, who studies exercise and the brain.
Physical activity helps protect brain cells and stimulates blood vessels to grow in the brain—the more vessels to carry oxygen to the brain (the number one user of oxygen in the body), the greater the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex and the better your memory function.
Equally important: Exercise grows new neurons in the hippocampus. Research suggests that the growth factor BDNF, a protein which gets turned on during aerobic exercise, may be partly responsible for the birth of neurons. These fresh neurons are quick learners and are integrated faster into hippocampal circuits than existing neurons, improving recall. Moderate and high-intensity aerobic activity also reduce the concentration of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles that can eventually lead to dementia.
A 2018 study in Neurology that measured Swedish women’s cardiovascular fitness at midlife—participants’ ages ranged from 38 to 60—found that, after 44 years, those who were very fit in midlife staved off dementia nine years longer than those with low cardio fitness. All of exercise’s benefits taken together help build up what experts call a cognitive reserve, a sort of supercharged 401K for your brain.
How much is enough? Getting your heart rate up via walking, gardening, biking—even power vacuuming—three to four times a week for 30 minutes will do the trick. “It’s not about becoming an elite athlete,” says Suzuki, but rather increasing your cardio fitness from your own baseline.
People in their 70s who walk three times a week decrease their chances of developing dementia by 30 percent, she says, according to a 2004 study in JAMA. Weight training likely has benefits, too, but science is still working out the best formula.
Food for thought
Foods rich in memory-enhancing nutrients and low in saturated fat, not supplements, are the way to eat, experts say. Adults, especially, can benefit from eating a Mediterranean-style diet, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. It found that those with the highest adherence to the diet had a 30 to 35 percent lower risk of scoring poorly on cognitive tests, which included measures of episodic and working memory.
Experts suspect the combination of foods facilitates neuronal cell signaling, keeps the brain’s blood vessels healthy, and reduces inflammatory compounds that can muck up memory processes.
Here’s how to reap the benefits:
*Limit red meat and full-fat dairy; increase produce, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and fish; and use olive oil for cooking.
*Eat foods with flavonoids and flavanols. These antioxidant compounds—found in apples (especially the peels), berries, citrus fruits, black tea, and cocoa beans—are thought to keep memory sharp by protecting neurons and enhancing cell signaling. These substances increase BDNF, which fosters the birth of neurons. Chocolate lovers: If you want the most brain bang for your buck, go for bars and cocoa powders that are not alkalized (also called Dutched), since the process can lower flavanol content.
*Omega-3 fatty acids, found in high amounts in fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, as well as flaxseed and walnuts—build cell membranes in the brain and may have anti-inflammatory effects that protect brain cells. Even one seafood meal a week can make a difference: A 2016 study published in Neurology that followed over 900 older adults for five years found that those who ate seafood once a week or more (even fish sticks count!) had lower rates of decline of factual memory than those who ate seafood less than once a week. People carrying the APOE e4 allele, which increases Alzheimer’s risk, showed the most benefit when it came to slowing rates of cognitive decline.