Published: Sept. 19, 2008
Updated: Apr. 15, 2010
Tips to protect your memory as you age
By Carol Harbers
Although there is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia, memory expert Murali Doraiswamy, MD, says there are many things you can do to keep your mind sharp as you age:
It’s like a garden: fertilize it. Studies have shown that mental activities such as working crossword puzzles or playing chess can not only maintain your brain, they can improve its function. Mental activities seem to boost production of nerve growth factors -- sort of a fertilizer for the brain, says Doraiswamy. This keeps your nerve cells more connected, and the more connections one has the more reserve capacity one has to stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s.
It’s like an athlete: cross-train it. Beyond your usual sudoku or bridge, look for new activities to cross-train your brain. Your brain will benefit from the workout -- like using muscles that rarely get worked. Learn a new skill or attend a lecture on an unfamiliar topic. Try something you’ve never done before -- such as learning to upload videos to YouTube -- or perform a routine activity in a different way.
It’s like a teenager: let it hang out with friends -- and sleep in. Be a social butterfly and avoid being isolated. Your brain likes being around people. It also uses sleep as valuable time for turning experiences into memories, so don’t skimp on shut-eye. In fact, chronic sleep deprivation can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms.
It has cravings: indulge it. The brain’s favorite foods are the same as the heart’s favorite foods: richly colored fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids. The best bets in terms of nutritional supplements are B vitamins, folic acid, and fish oil. Your brain also craves a good aerobic workout, which stimulates blood flow, enhances levels of brain-healthy chemicals, and improves stress, depression, and sleep -- a triple treat for the brain.
It has its limits: don’t stress it. While excess cholesterol is probably as bad for your head as it is for your heart, stress is the ultimate enemy of brain function. In addition to aerobic exercise, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can help you worry less and be happy more. "The brain likes optimism," says Doraiswamy.
The tips on this page are all adapted from The Alzheimer’s Action Plan. Doraiswamy teamed with Lisa P. Gwyther, MSW, founder and director of the Alzheimer’s Family Support Program at the Duke University Center for Aging, to co-author this book, which is a step-by-step guide for memory problems or Alzheimer’s, as well as those simply interested in prevention.
The book, praised by national memory experts and health advocates, is a guide for patients and their loved ones, with advice on everything from medical options to emotional well-being. It includes tips for a brain-healthy lifestyle, treatment myths, and a peek at the future of Alzheimer’s treatment.