Neglecting your brain health can make you vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia.
As a neuroscientist, I’ve spent decades guiding patients with memory problems through brain-enhancing habits and exercises — many of which I practice, too.
Here are seven hard rules I follow to keep my brain and memory sharp as a whip at 81 years old:
You can learn a lot from non-fiction works, but they are often organized in ways that allow you to skip around based on personal interests and previous familiarity with the subject.
Fiction, on the other hand, requires you to exercise your memory, as you proceed from beginning to end and retain a variety of details, characters and plots.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed over my years as a neuropsychiatrist that people with early dementia, as one of the first signs of the encroaching illness, often stop reading novels.
Start by intently studying the details until you can see them in your mind’s eye. Then describe the painting while looking away from it. You can do this with any piece of art to boost your memory.
Naps lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, between 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., have been shown to increase later recall for information encoded prior to the nap.
Several studies have also found that naps can compensate for poor sleep at night. If you struggle with insomnia, a mid-afternoon nap can boost memory performance.
Over the years, I’ve trained myself to nap for exactly half an hour. Some people I know have learned to nap for only 15 minutes, and then wake up refreshed and reinvigorated.
My favorite activity is “20 Questions,” where one person (the questioner) leaves the room and the remaining players select a person, place or thing. The questioner can ask up to 20 questions to guess what the group decided.
Success depends on the questioner’s ability to keep clearly in mind all of the answers and mentally eliminating possible choices on the basis of the answers.
Bridge and chess are also great for exercising your memory: In order to do well, you have to evaluate previous games, while also considering the future consequences of your decisions in the past and present.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, has a great acronym for a BRAIN FOODS:
And good news for chocoholics (like me): A 2020 study found that cocoa flavonoids, the ingredients in dark chocolate, can enhance episodic memory in healthy young adults.
My wife’s dog, Leah, is a Schipperke (pronounced “SKIP-er-kee”). It is a distinctive name, but I’d have the hardest time remembering it. So to finally be able to answer “What kind of breed is that?” at the dog park, I formed the image of a small sailboat (small dog) with a burly skipper holding a huge key.
Get in the habit of converting anything which you find hard to remember into a wild, bizarre or otherwise attention grabbing image.
One recent study of 82,872 volunteers found that participants 80 years or older who engaged in moderate to high level of physical activity were at lower risk for dementia, compared with inactive adults aged 50 to 69 years.
Even just a shift from sedentary non-activity (prolonged sitting, a “never walk when you can drive” attitude), to active movement (standing, climbing stairs, walking a mile daily) made a difference.
Housework has also been linked to higher attention and memory scores and better sensory and motor function in older adults.
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