Seven easy ways to exercise your brain and sharpen your memory

Woman covered with sticky notes

Source: Pond5

Worried because you forget things? Why you left the room? Where you put your glasses? Whether you turned off the iron? A name? An appointment?

Someone told me that as long as you realize you forgot something, you’re ok. It’s when you don’t even have a clue that you should start being concerned. So far, so good, but I still can’t help but worry now and again.

I know I’m not alone. An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. Those numbers are expected to almost triple by 2050.

As we age, our brains don’t function as well as they did when we were younger. That’s normal. While memory loss may be the thing we notice most, we may also be a little slower at processing information and making decisions. It’s called cognitive aging and it’s not the same as Alzheimer’s.

We know what to do to keep our bodies in shape, but what about our brains? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) says there are several things we can do to protect our cognitive health as we age.

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How to exercise your brain

Here are the top three actions we can take:

1) Be physically active.

Studies have shown that physical exercise improves the speed at which we process information. It also helps get more oxygen to the brain and stimulates growth factors. Portland neurologist Dr. Eric Dinnerstein recommends 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week.

2) Reduce cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.

Heart disease is a significant cause of vascular dementia. Some studies also link it to Alzheimer’s disease.

3) Manage medications.

Older adults are prescribed an average of more than one dozen drugs a year.  Close to half belong to a class called anticholinergics. They block neurotransmitters in the brain and are used to treat, among other things, asthma, muscle spasms, depression and sleep disorders. Studies have shown that people who take these drugs are more likely to develop dementia than those who don’t. Whatever medications you take, it’s important to review them with your doctor on a regular basis.

Ready to add more to your routine?

4) Get adequate sleep.

5) If you have a sleep disorder, get treatment.

6) Be socially and intellectually engaged.

7) Continually seek opportunities to learn.

We may not learn something new as quickly as a younger person, but we can still learn — and keep — the information. “The idea is to utilize a variety of activities and challenge,” say Dr. Dinnerstein. “Learn to dance, to swim, to play a new instrument. Learn a new language or read a book in a genre you’re not familiar with. Basically, this newness is cognitively stimulating.” 

Interviewing people, doing research and writing the Catching Health blog help keep my brain stimulated. I’m also pursuing a fine arts degree at USM. Taking creative classes — painting and drawing, for instance — alongside much younger students is invigorating and exciting.

It’s reassuring and motivating to know that as we age, there are lots of things we can do to keep our brains sharp. We just need to do them! And remember this. Our brains may be aging, but we make up for it with all the wisdom and experience we’ve gained over our lifetimes!

What do you do to exercise your brain?

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.