We all have skips in our memory from time to time — misplacing our keys, forgetting an event or appointment, or failing to remember the name of an acquaintance. But as we age, particularly as we reach and pass the age of 65, it is easy to wonder if such small lapses in our memory can be signs of something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia.
The good news is that most of us won’t develop such serious diseases; fewer than 1 in 5 people over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, for example. The bad news is that some memory loss is common as we age — the American Psychological Association says that both our “episodic memory,” which remembers the small things in our daily lives, as well as our long-term memory, which stretches back to childhood, will decline as we grow older.
Thankfully, recent studies point to a variety of ways that we can reduce age-related memory loss and improve how our brain works from day to day. Tips from the Mayo Clinic and the American Psychological Association on ways to improve our memory include:
Staying mentally active
Mental activity can keep your brain in better shape, and this can be done in a variety of ways. You can do mind games, like crossword puzzles, or computer training games designed to improve mental acuity. You can learn how to speak a new language or play an instrument. Even volunteering at the local school or library can push you to consider new challenges and organize your environment, keeping your brain active.
Participating in social activities can help to reduce depression, which can contribute to memory problems. In addition, being social has been shown to improve longevity of life and overall health.
You’re less likely to lose things when your house is in order and you have systems in place. Make sure to write down appointments in a journal or on a calendar, or use your phone’s calendar and notes features to track events and to do lists. Clear out the clutter and identify places to keep easy-to-lose items like house and car keys, your phone (and chargers), and your purse or wallet.
Training your brain.
When you learn new things, try using mnemonics, acronyms and associations to help remember them. Mnemonics use words to remember a sequence, like “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos” to remember the order of the planets. Acronyms simply use the first letter of every word, like “Roy G. Biv” to represent the colors of the rainbow in order of wavelength (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). And associations create a visual link to a name or location, like picturing a gate to a waterfall when trying to remember the Watergate Hotel.
Lack of sleep can not only create cognitive problems, but it can also increase the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and system-wide inflammation.
Eating a balanced diet.
Studies have shown that people who eat more fish, fruits and vegetables (also known as the Mediterranean diet) have lower risks of heart disease and diabetes, as well as healthier brains. In addition, diets heavy in omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and other fish, have been shown to improve the networking in your brain.
Managing your health.
Stay on top of any chronic conditions, like diabetes or thyroid problems, by making regular doctor appointments and taking any prescribed medications. If you have multiple doctors, be sure to tell each one every medication that you’re taking, even if it’s a multivitamin, so that your doctor can consider whether there are any risks when all of the medication is taken at the same time — including the risk of memory loss. This also includes keeping up with your glasses or contact prescriptions and having your hearing checked regularly; it’s hard to remember something if you didn’t hear it clearly or weren’t able to read it.
Being physically active.
There are many reasons to exercise — physical activity can reduce the risk of a variety of diseases, and it makes you feel better both physically and mentally. In addition, it has been shown to provide a variety of mental benefits, including improving memory, increasing cognition in older patients, and reducing brain shrinkage. Your physical therapist can help you identify exercise activities that are a match for your fitness level and physical condition.