Take steps to help sharpen your memory as you age

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: Is it true that there are things I can do to prevent memory loss as I age? I'm 48 and feel like my memory is very poor compared to just a few years ago.

Commonly, memory becomes less efficient as we age. Although there's no surefire way to prevent memory loss, you can take steps that may help. If memory loss begins to interfere with your day-to-day activities, though, or if changes in memory concern you, talk to your doctor.

As people get older, the number of cells, or neurons, in the brain decreases. That decrease can make it harder to learn new things or remember familiar words or names. You may have difficulty recalling names of acquaintances, for example, or trouble finding your reading glasses or car keys. Some people become concerned that those memory lapses could signal the beginning of Alzheimer's disease or dementia. That's rarely the case.

A number of lifestyle changes can often help sharpen your memory. First, stay active physically and mentally. Physical activity increases blood flow to your body, including your brain, and that can help your memory. So, take a brisk walk, or go biking, swimming or skiing. Do whatever you enjoy to stay active on a regular basis.

Physical activity helps keep your body in shape, and intellectual activity can do likewise for your brain. Reading, writing, attending movies or plays, playing games or discussing current events can be mentally engaging activities. Again, find the activities you like, and stick with them.


Second, stay or get involved in a social network. As you get older, avoid the tendency some people have to withdraw from others. Interact with your family and friends, civic organizations, a faith or other community. Being with others can help lower your risk of depression and reduce stress. Both may have a role in memory loss.

Third, eat a healthy diet. In general, a diet that keeps your heart healthy can do the same for your brain. Such a diet typically includes whole grains; lean meat, poultry and fish; and at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Also, drink plenty of water and limit the amount of alcohol you drink, as dehydration and too much alcohol can both lead to confusion and possibly memory loss.

Fourth, stay organized. You can structure daily activities to decrease the likelihood that you will forget what you need to do or where something is located. Making lists, putting items away where they belong and getting rid of unneeded clutter can help. Finally, as much as possible, focus on one thing at a time. Multitasking may feel efficient but can become stressful and distracting. Neither is good for your memory.

If you try these lifestyle changes and memory still seems to be a significant problem, or if you're worried about recent memory changes, make an appointment to see your primary care doctor. The doctor can discuss your symptoms with you and review your family medical history and medications or dietary supplements you're taking. In some cases, memory loss can be a side effect of certain drugs. Your doctor may also talk with you about your stress level or any major life changes you've experienced.

Together, you and your doctor can sort through the issues that may be contributing to memory loss and decide on the best course of action. — Ronald C. Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, Mayo Clinic, Rochester.

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