Don't Forget -- Give Your Brain a Workout, Too

If you can't remember that grocery list, your memory skills may just need more practice.
If you can't remember that grocery list, your memory skills may just need more practice.
Paul Bradbury/OJO Images/Getty Images

Memory improvement is an important thing to consider the older you get. Many people start to look for memory improvement techniques once they reach their golden years, but improvement for your memory is something you can learn at any age. In this article, we suggest ways to boost your memory, show the relationship between aging and memory, and offer some great advice for memory improvement.

Sign of Normal Aging: You have to pause momentarily to find your way walking or driving in familiar territory

Sign of Dementia (a disabling form of memory loss, such as Alzheimer's): You get lost for hours walking or driving in familiar territory

Sign of Normal Aging: You are more concerned than family members about your episodes of forgetfulness

Sign of Dementia: Family members are more concerned than you about your incidents of memory loss

Don't assume it's Alzheimer's if you walk upstairs, only to say to yourself, "What did I want up here?" It could be that you're simply trying to remember too many details at once or that you're tired, sick or just plain distracted.

The normal loss of brain cells between the ages 30 and 70, coupled with the expected 15 to 20 percent decline in the brain's blood flow among neurons, could account for any slight slide in memory, learning and intelligence.

But you can take some steps to preserve your memory, according to Harvard cognition experts, who recommend that you:

  1. Exercise. Physical fitness often goes along with mental fitness.
  2. Continue to learn. Taking adult education classes, reading regularly, taking up a new hobby or playing Scrabble or another challenging game can keep your mind strong.
  3. Don't smoke. Studies show that smokers forget people's names and faces faster than nonsmokers.
  4. Eat a healthful diet. Maintaining a normal weight and eating antioxidants can help you avoid memory-impairing illnesses.
  5. Get enough sleep. Strive for eight hours to allow your brain to consolidate the day's lessons.
  6. Consider taking vitamins such as C and E. They might protect against some forms of dementia, though they probably won't protect against normal, age-related memory loss.
  7. Consider taking estrogen if you're a woman going through menopause. Drops in estrogen may contribute to memory loss so consider, with your doctor, whether hormone replacement therapy is right for you.
  8. Maintain social connections. Close ties with others seem to improve older people's mental performance.

Whip Your Brain into Shape!

For those who fear age-related memory loss, anti-aging specialist Stephen Sinatra, M.D. suggests this "brain health program":

  • Eat a Mediterranean diet, which encourages plenty of fruits, vegetables and nuts; so-called "healthy fats" such as olive oil; low-glycemic carbohydrates such as garlic and onions; and cold-water fish such as salmon and halibut. It will protect your brain while it helps your heart, says Sinatra, who is also a board-certified cardiologist.
  • Consider the possible brain-boosting benefits of various dietary supplements, specifically whey protein, N-acetylcysteine, ginkgo biloba, vitamin B-complex, alpha-lipoic acid, phosphatidylserine complex and acetyl-L-carnitine.
  • Look into new "smart drugs," such as Centrophenoxine, Piracetam, Vinpocetine, Hydergine and Eldepryl, which have been shown in some tests to decrease declines in memory.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the so-called smart drugs for improving learning and memory, and data are mixed about whether the products, which can sometimes be found in health food stores and in other cases must be imported, have beneficial effects on brain functioning. The strongest evidence seems to support their usefulness for people with diseases such as Alzheimer's or traumatic brain injury.

For the majority of people, Sinatra says, "The most important thing is not to take smart drugs, but to be smart about insidious environmental toxins." His examples of such toxins include electromagnetic fields ("kids talking on the cell phone for six, seven hours a day is a disaster"), excessive amounts of alcohol, and the street drug ecstasy.

Smart drugs aside, an approved Alzheimer drug has lately shown benefits for people who show no signs of dementia. In a new study, the drug Donepezil improved the ability of healthy pilots aged 30 to 70 to perform complicated tasks during a simulated flight.

Today: pilots. Tomorrow: the rest of us who need to take a test or remember an important phone number. A prediction from the Alliance for Aging Research's Daniel Perry: Within five to 10 years, a magical memory pill will be discovered that will be "one of the great joys of the baby boomers."