Do any of these scenarios sound vaguely familiar?
- "What did I eat for breakfast yesterday?" (You ask yourself, incredulously, because after all, it was just a day ago.)
- You date your checks incorrectly, writing the year 2013 instead of 2014. (Is it that time is going so fast, or are you really that forgetful?)
- Your child told you the name of his or her latest heartthrob, yet even though it's on the tip of your tongue the name is not coming to you. (Is it that there have been so many "latest loves" or do you just have trouble recalling names?)
- You walk into a room to get something, except once there, you have no idea what it was you came in for. (Are you multitasking or stressed, or are you simply losing your mind?)
One true thing: memory erodes as we get older. Even though your hippocampus—that area of the brain responsible for building memory—loses about 5 percent of its nerve cells each decade, and the production of acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter important for learning and memory) slows with aging, research shows that our brains are still able to form new, memory-building networks, which can enable us to boost our power of recollection.
Memory experts say that if you want a "fit" brain, you have to keep using it. Use it—or lose it. While those memory lapses can be annoying, stressful and worrisome, we have more control than we think.
The antiaging brain "diet" includes not just certain foods, but some other things like mental activity, physical fitness and stress reduction.
Brain health is directly related to nutrition and lifestyle, says registered dietitian Samantha Heller in her book, Get Smart. Her nutrition prescription for boosting your brain power includes:
- Lots of veggies (9-11 servings per day)
- Two to three fruits each day
- Whole grains like whole-wheat pasta, brown and wild rice and whole-grain cereals
- Healthy oils like olive, canola, peanut, sesame and walnut
- Lean, healthy sources of protein like low-fat or nonfat dairy, soy, nuts, egg whites and beans
- White-meat skinless poultry or fish (two 3- to 4-ounce portions a day)
- Dark chocolate
Other "smart" foods include blueberries (animal studies show they protect the brain against oxidative stress), wild salmon (it's rich in omega-3 fatty acids, essential for brain function), nuts and seeds (good sources of vitamin E, which has been associated with less cognitive decline) and avocados (rich in monounsaturated fat, which contributes to healthy blood flow). Some studies have demonstrated that supplementing with vitamin D and B-12 can boost cognitive function.
Here are some of the many ways to challenge your brain:
- Puzzles like Sudoku and crosswords.
- AARP offers a variety of free online games.
- Luminosity gives you a personalized training program that tracks your progress.
- Cogniciti offers a free online 20-minute brain health assessment for adults aged 50-79.
- Fit Brains challenges your brain with fun programs designed by neuroscientists.
- HAPPYneuron offers a coach, which provides you with a tracking tool to check your progress, personalized guidance and motivation.
- CogniFit brings you personalized brain fitness training programs designed to train memory and concentration.
- Cognitive rehabilitation specialist Ruth Curran, in her Cranium Crunches blog offers thinking puzzles, games and apps that help improve your thinking, cognitive functioning and overall brain health.
- In addition to its benefits like lowering your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, aerobic exercise can protect your memory and thinking skills.
- A study from the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise might boost the size of the hippocampus (that's the brain area involved in verbal learning and memory).
- Exercise also improves your mood and your sleep and reduces stress and anxiety—all contributors to cognitive impairment.
- Other studies suggest that aerobic exercise promotes growth in the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory.
- Standard recommendations call for a half hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week. That's 150 minutes a week. Overwhelming? Start slow, and build up by five to 10 minutes every week. Soon enough, you'll be racking up the minutes.
There has been much research on the negative effects of stress on memory and other cognitive functions. Emotional stress plays havoc with many body processes, including the ability to remember and recall recently learned information.
One study found that stress hormones can negatively influence the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain that controls high-level "executive" functions like working memory and decision making. In a study of juvenile rats, long-term stress was found to impair glutamate receptors, which play a role in PFC function. Turns out, chronic stress when you're younger may have a negative effect on memory years later.
Perhaps to make you feel more empowered when it comes to stress, remember this: much of the stress we feel is a matter of how we perceive and handle it.
Just a few ways to manage your stress include meditation, yoga, keeping a "worries" journal (or conversely, a gratitude journal), prioritizing your to-do list, reading an engrossing book, eating well, exercising … oh, I'm sure you all know them.
It's doing them that makes all the difference. Your memory may just thank you.
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