If your keys keep playing hide-and-seek and you can’t recall the name of your daughter’s latest BFF, what should you do? Occasional memory blips are “extremely normal”, especially for busy moms, according to Barry Gordon, M.D., PhD, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of Intelligent Memory. “Your memory’s probably not as bad as you think it is,” he says, and too much self-monitoring might only make it worse.
Besides, the latest research shows there are far more effective ways than worry to sharpen your wits. While we do lose brain cells past the teenage years, there’s accumulating evidence that we can also foster new ones. Some of these brain-boosters may surprise you; many are even fun!
Get a Move On
The evidence that aerobic fitness benefits your mind as well as your body keeps growing by, well, leaps and bounds. One recent study at the Mayo Clinic found that subjects who did moderate workouts (about 30 minutes) 5 or 6 times a week cut their later risk of mild cognitive impairment by 32 percent. Reformed couch potatoes did even better, reducing their risk by 39 percent.
You can also add weight training to your routine: Researchers at the University of Illinois reported that both aerobic and resistance training workouts keep your brain healthier in old age.
“The best way to keep your mind and memory sharp as you age is to nourish yourself with a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods,” says Elisa Zied, a registered dietician whose new book, Younger Next Week, details many connections between diet and brain health.
Numerous studies show that regular consumption of a Mediterranean-accented diet — including the fish and low-fat dairy, vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and olive oil seen in the typical Greek menu — can help reduce and even reverse cognitive decline (as well as other threats to brain and body such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes). The mental and physical benefits of omega-3, found in fatty fish used in these types of diets, have often been demonstrated. A 2014 study published in the journal Neurology found that postmenopausal women who maintained the highest blood levels of omega-3 kept more brain cells as they aged, especially in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories. (A major clinical study on the effectiveness of fish oil supplements is now underway at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.)
Anyone who needs a jolt or two of java to get started in the morning already knows that caffeine spurs alertness. But a recent study at Johns Hopkins suggests that caffeine can enhance memory, too; participants who drank coffee retained more visual images when tested 24 hours later than those who didn’t.
The benefits of tea, hot chocolate, and wine have been supported by other scientific research too. According to one study published in the Journal of Nutrition, those who regularly drank all three beverages scored highest on verbal and visual tests.
Sleep on It
The National Institutes of Health reports that snoozing powers our memory before, during and after we learn something new. On the other hand, Finnish researchers found that sleep deprivation — less than four hours in a night — can impair attention, working memory, long-term memory and decision-making ability (as many new moms might attest).
You’ve probably heard that crosswords or Sudoku can build a more agile brain. But if you’re not into filling out little boxes, says Dr. Gordon, try something new. “Get out of your rut” and find something you enjoy doing, he says. Learn to tap dance or do Zumba, study Spanish or juggling, take up meditation or sketching; there’s ample research indicating that mastering new skills can stimulate the mind.
Train Your Brain
Computerized brain-training programs have proliferated in the last few years. It’s “not clear yet” how well they work over the long term, Gordon notes, but go ahead and play them if you’ve got time and interest. But if you really want to remember a name, he adds, do what skilled politicians do: focus on the person, repeat their name aloud, and write it down when you get a chance. As for those elusive keys: Always drop them in a designated spot, such as a deep bowl on a hall table. And relax.