I can remember my childhood best friend’s phone number from 25 years ago, but I still forget things my wife told me two days ago – sorry, Sweetheart! It’s not that I am forgetful as much as I am distracted, but given my family’s history of dementia, I want to make sure I’m taking care of my brain and avoid memory problems.
Curious, I asked Anna Burke, MD, a Banner Alzheimer’s Institute geriatric psychiatrist and dementia specialist, for things I can do to help maintain my memory.
Dr. Burke said some memory issues – taking longer to remember a word or a name, for example – are a normal part of aging and are more of an annoyance. The good news is there are several things you can do to maintain memory, starting with….
Using your brain is one key way you can maintain your memory. Certain activities can create new connections to information stored in your brain, allowing information to get around even if some connections are lost with age, according to Dr. Burke. The best part is you may already be doing some of these memory-maintaining activities.
“Games and online computer games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language and playing musical instruments all help create new connections in the brain,” Dr. Burke said.
If all of the other reasons to exercise weren’t enough, Dr. Burke said, “Exercise has a huge influence on cognitive capabilities.”
In fact, even 30 to 40 minutes per day can help someone maintain their memory, according to Dr. Burke. A brisk walk, a nice bike ride or run can all make a difference.
Many assisted living facilities have activities to get the residents out and interacting with each other on a social level, and there is a very good reason for this. Dr. Burke notes that social activities with peers actually use different parts of the brain than when we interact with family.
“Some studies have shown that 30 minutes interacting with peers can equal four hours spent working on crosswords,” Dr. Burke said.
Have you heard that blueberries are good for your memory? Well, according to Dr. Burke, no single food has been shown to help improve memory. ”There is nothing more than anecdotal evidence that blueberries can help memory,” she said.
However, a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and minimal red meats, such as a Mediterranean diet, can help maintain your memory.
She added, “What is good for the heart is good for the brain.”
We’ve covered the importance of sleep before on this blog, and it should come as no surprise that it can impact memory. Dr. Burke notes a good night’s sleep is good for your memory.
“Seven hours of sleep is good,” she added.
Besides these five things people should try to do, there are things Dr. Burke recommends avoiding. The list is probably not very surprising:
- Eliminate bad habits. Avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol use.(One glass of wine for women and two glasses for men each day can be beneficial, but more is not better).
- Avoid stress. Depression and highly stressful situations can impact memory.
- Take care of your general health. Diabetes, heart disease and atrial fibrillation, for example, can increase risk for memory troubles.
If you feel like your memory is starting to slip, Dr. Burke said there is help.
“As soon as you identify that something is off, visit your doctor,” she said. “There are certain tests they can do or can refer the person to a specialist to determine if it is simply normal aging or if it is excessive and requires intervention.”
And, don’t forget to sign up for the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry – especially if you have a family history of dementia.