5 Expert-Backed Ways To Boost Your Memory And Improve Brain Health At Every Age

Fortune Well April 2, 2024


5 Expert-Backed Ways To Boost Your Memory And Improve Brain Health At Every Age

Nearly everyone has walked into a room and immediately forgotten why, misplaced an item they just had, or failed to pick up an important ingredient while grocery shopping. These things are normal. 

But if the thought of forgetting bigger, more important things stresses you out, you’re not alone. 

“Memory is the big-ticket item. This is something that affects us all,” says Dr. Gary Small, professor and chair of psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.

Small, who specializes in geriatric psychiatry, says he got into it because he was fascinated by the fact that many cognitive problems progress gradually, which led him to focus on prevention.

“A big aha moment was that for the average person, genetics have less of an impact on how well our brains age than non-genetic factors, which means a lot of what happens to our minds as we age is under our control, to some extent,” Small tells Fortune.

Because of this, working to sharpen memory skills is important at any age. He says, however, that it’s easier to protect a healthy brain than it is to try to repair a damaged one. But he points out that “it’s never too early or too late to start protecting your brain..”

While doing day-to-day tasks puts the brain to work, Small suggests some specific ways to exercise the brain to get the biggest bang for your neural buck.

1. Play games and puzzles

Small suggests playing games or puzzles that “train and not strain” your brain.

“You want to find the kind of puzzle or game that is challenging and engaging and fun, but not too difficult,” he says.

“If it’s too difficult, it’ll be stressful and you’re going to give up. If it’s too easy, it’s just going to be routine and not really going to activate your neural circuits.”

Make sure to choose activities you enjoy. If you like word puzzles like Scrabble or crosswords, stick to those. Concentration or matching games are also helpful for memory, as they help improve short-term memory and problem solving skills, Small says.

Another memory-boosting suggestion that might come as a surprise? Video games. Racing games with informative road signs and distractions increase multitasking skills, hand-eye coordination, focus, and peripheral vision, according to Small.

“Playing that for a couple of weeks can help a 70-year-old multitask, as well as a 20-year-old,” he says.

In fact, one 2007 study found that surgeons who play video games are more skilled and less likely to make mistakes on the operating table. 

However, Small does warn against too much time spent playing games in virtual realities..

“A big part of memory is focusing attention and getting information into your brain. So it can be a big distraction if played too much, especially if playing these games just becomes a habit versus something that is stimulating,” Small says about video games in general.

If done with balance, games—digital or not—can have a great impact on brain stimulation and memory.

2. Be socially connected

Studies show that strong social ties are crucial to a happier life. But social connectedness can also lead to improved brain health, as it stimulates attention and memory.

Small says taking a daily walk with a friend to chat and catch up can actually be a “triple threat against Alzheimer’s disease.”

“You get the cardiovascular workout; you’ll have the empathetic conversation, which is interesting and engaging; plus it will give your neural circuits a good workout,” he says.

People with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive decline than people who spend most of their time alone. So not only can time with loved ones boost your mood, it’s also scientifically proven to be good for you!

3. Look, snap, connect

Small says the next way to improve memory care is a technique with its own easy-to-remember phrasing: Looksnapconnect.

Look: Focus your attention. Small says the biggest reason people forget things is due to distractions, so try to remain clear-headed and focused on the topic at hand.

Snap: Create a mental snapshot of what you want to recall later, which leverages the brain’s natural ability to recall things visually. 

Connect: Link those mental snapshots to a meaning, like a sweet moment or an important figure or time in your life. 

“If you make something meaningful, it will be memorable,” Small says.

One of the hardest things to remember is names and faces, so using this technique to think of a character or personality trait someone has (look) while taking a mental picture of a physical trait they possess (snap) and combining those things together mentally (connect) can be a structured way to remember details.

4. Physical exercise works out the brain too

By now, everyone probably knows being active is beneficial for our physical health. Exercising also improves brain health.

When you do aerobic exercise, your heart pumps oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells. Human bodies produce proteins that enhance neural connections in the brain, which work to support sensory, motor, and cognitive skills that regulate behavior. Plus, exercising produces endorphins, which give a mood boost, further improving brain health (a happy brain really can mean a healthy one). 

“But you don’t have to become a triathlete to gain these benefits,” Small says. Studies show that just a 30-minute brisk walk can lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and overall cognitive decline.

Current research shows aerobic exercises like walks and swimming are great for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s, but physical exercise can also come from things like gardening, cleaning, or cooking. 

5. Eat a well-balanced diet

Restrictive dieting and fasting aren’t necessary to strengthen brain function, but Small says it is important to consider consuming foods that will make your brain happy.

He recommends a Mediterranean-style diet, which is great for brain health. Eating fish and nuts that include anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats protects brains from excessive inflammation, which can accelerate brain aging. 

Limiting the amount of processed foods and refined sugars also helps lower the risk of developing diabetes, which increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

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