You’re out to dinner and feel a hand on your shoulder as a familiar voice says your name. You turn around and this person is smiling. You know her—you’ve known her for years, in fact. But her name has evaporated from your mind, and all you can muster is a “Hey…you!”
Before you start Googling “signs of dementia ,” rest assured that some changes in memory and cognition are a normal part of the aging process, especially if they manifest as trouble finding words or momentary lapses in attention ( Why did I walk into the kitchen? ). “Many of our cognitive skills, like multitasking and processing speed, peak around age 30 and then tend to decline very subtly with age,” says Joel Kramer, Psy.D., director of the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Neuropsychology program.
But they don’t have to. By making smart lifestyle choices, you can retrain your brain so it stays sharp and focused. We asked some of the brainiest experts for research-backed tips on keeping your noggin young . 1. Try to remember before Googling.
The internet is great for telling you the name of that actor whose name won’t budge from the tip of your tongue. But it’s fueling a modern-day condition called digital amnesia—forgetting information because you trust a computerized device to remember it for you. It’s the reason half of us can’t phone our children or office without using our contacts list, according to a survey by Internet security company Kaspersky Lab.
“The brain is a use-it-or-lose-it machine,” says Sara Mednick, Ph.D., an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. When we learn new things and then recall them later, we activate the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain intimately involved with memory. But when we rely on external sources, like our phones or the Internet, to remember for us, those regions of the brain can weaken.
The next time you’re struggling to name an actor, challenge yourself not to look it up. “Work through it and trust that your brain knows the answer—you just need to find it in there,” Mednick says. Similarly, try to make your way to a new address without using Google Maps—or if that’s too daunting, take a new route home from work. “It’s all about not living in automatic mode,” Mednick says. “The more you think things through or try novel approaches, the more you engage your brain to keep it healthier longer.” 2. Take a nap.
Quality restful sleep is nonnegotiable when it comes to thinking fast on your feet. As we progress from slow-wave sleep in the first part of the night to REM sleep in the early morning hours, our memories transform the material we learned throughout the day into actual working knowledge.
There’s no substitute for getting those seven to eight hours. But a strategically timed nap can come surprisingly close, says Mednick. “When we nap in the middle of the day, our time in each stage is more efficient,” she says. “In a 90-minute nap, you cycle through both slow-wave and REM sleep, but you do it in the same proportion as it occurs across a whole night of sleep.” Because of this, “a 90-minute nap can rival what you’d get overnight in terms of memory consolidation, creativity, and productivity.” Too tricky to fit 90 minutes into your schedule? A 30-minute nap can help lock in information too. 3. Get exercise every day.
Any time you move in a way that gets your blood pumping, you give your brain a boost. “Blood is filled with oxygen and nutrients that feed our brains,” says Gary W. Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and the author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain . Exercise also spurs the body to produce a protein that “acts like fertilizer for the brain, stimulating neurons to sprout branches so they can communicate more effectively,” says Dr. Small. When University of Illinois researchers asked 120 adults between 55 and 80 to spend 40 minutes three days per week either walking briskly or stretching and toning, they found that after one year, a memory center (the hippocampus) of the walkers’ brains was 2% bigger than in the stretching and toning group. That percentage may sound small, but it’s “enough to essentially reverse the brain shrinkage that naturally occurs with aging in the same period of time,” Dr. Small notes.
Even a single workout could be enough to give you an immediate cognitive boost. A small but promising 2019 study found that people who did 30 minutes of stationary cycling had better ability to recall names than others who simply rested. 4. Don’t multitask so much.
Multitasking makes us feel productive, but the opposite is actually true. “The brain is not designed to focus on several tasks at once,” Dr. Small says. As a result, our brains feel stressed when we multitask, “and we make more errors, which has the ultimate effect of making us less efficient.” (A four-second interruption—the time it takes to glance at your phone—can triple your chances of making a mistake during a task.)
That stress , perceived or not, also triggers the release of hormones that interfere with short-term memory. That’s why if the phone rings when you’re in the midst of a conversation with someone, it can be tricky to remember what you were saying after you hang up.
Instead of attempting to juggle your entire to-do list simultaneously, work smarter and monotask. First, place your phone out of sight; the brain’s ability to hold and process data is compromised whenever a smartphone is within reach, even if it’s powered off. Dr. Small says that designating specific times to answer email every day may squash the compulsion to check your inbox constantly. If the lure of email or social media is too tempting, use a digital time management program like Time Doctor or RescueTime to block access to specific sites.
Some people also find success with a […]