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6 Ways to Strengthen Your Memory

    • Having a few senior moments? (“Why did I come into this room?”) Although we may have had this experience before in our life, after the age of 40 or 50 memory loss takes on a different meaning, leaving many of us looking for ways to improve our memory and protect our brain health.

      MyLifeStages spoke with San Francisco Neurologist Catherine Madison, M.D.Opens new window and Director of the Brain Health Center at California Pacific Medical CenterOpens new window to get some tips. Dr. Madison noted that for Baby Boomers, our greatest concern about our future health is probably focused around brain health. To lose our memories and cognitive skills –our very sense of self – strikes fear in all of us.

      So what can you do now to strengthen and improve your memory? While you may be wishing for a list of quick, easy tasks you can check off, our expert’s advice is slightly more expansive – and important.

      1. Avoid Cardiovascular Disease

      Find out if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol so you can treat it (see heart disease risk factors). When plaque accumulates in your veins, it doesn’t happen only in the heart. Blocked arteries in the neck and throughout the brain can result in a stroke, damaging the brain itself. Even minor narrowing, or what is called “ischemic changes,” will impact your brain’s ability to function well. Habits that are good for your heart (regular exercise, eating well, not smoking) are good for your brain.

      2. Get Enough Sleep

      Dr. Madison notes that recent studies have focused on the impact of sleep loss on memory and brain disease. If you have daytime sleepiness or disrupted sleep, she recommends you discuss these with your doctor. Sleep apnea is a common, often undiagnosed, and treatable condition that adversely affects many aspects of health. “Sleep is not just a passive process we engage in only when we have to,” says Madison. “Sleep is essential for your body, including the functioning of your brain.”

      See 10 tips for improving your sleep.

      3. Exercise - Regularly

      You might have suspected this one. Exercise has so many positive qualities; it ends up on almost every list of recommended practices for good health. It helps your brain, too. Dr. Madison reminds you that you don’t have to run marathons – just fit in brisk walking or a similar activity every day, even if broken up into several smaller segments. The goal is a total of 30 minutes each day. Move enough to work up a light sweat. Just remember to move!

      For inspiration, see our Fitness and Exercise library for videos and workout plans.

      4. Reduce Your Stress

      Learn how to chill out. And put those electronic devices away. We were not meant to live in a state of chronic stress. Finding periods of relaxation in your day is essential. While researchers study how technology can be used to improve brain function or recovery, Madison notes that technology can add to your stress. The key is to avoid having technology push out other good habits. “If you find yourself skipping exercise to stay online, or waking up at night to check emails from people in different time zones, then your technology is stressing you,” says Dr. Madison.

      See ideas for coping with stress.

      5. Learn New Things - Help Your Brain Expand its Connections

      So here’s the one tip you might have expected. The more you ask your brain to take in and process new information, the “stronger” it can become. Madison likens the nerve cells in your brain to a tree. New experiences and challenges are like fresh water, helping the brain grow new branches or connections. She notes that expanding this network can happen at any age, and actually has a great benefit if it happens earlier in life. (So don’t wait till you qualify for a senior discount to start that interesting class or new hobby. And don’t stop when you get that senior discount.) “We have learned from stroke patients that the brain is remarkably ‘plastic’ and can continue to expand and adapt at any age,” says Dr. Madison.

      6. Feed Your Brain Well

      Create a rainbow on your plate. Just like the brightly colored compounds in fruits and vegetables protect them from environmental stress; these compounds can help protect your brain from oxidative stress as well. Combine fruits and vegetables with lots of whole grains, limited animal fats and refined sugars/starches. Think of your diet a providing the building blocks for the new brain connections being generated with your exercise and learning.

                • When to Worry About Your Memory?

                • We will all likely have some degree of slow-down in our cognition as we age, which is a normal phenomenon and not a sign of Alzheimer’s. This slow down includes having difficulty coming up with words, proper nouns and people’s names. The older brain also has trouble with multi-tasking and trying to do several things at once.

                  When to worry? If you forget whether you have unloaded the dishwasher – don’t worry. But if you have unloaded the dishwasher into the oven, this might be a cause for concern. If you have real concerns about your memory, see your doctor.

                Ask our experts your health question(s).