By now, you likely know about the go-to tips touted by experts for maintaining your memory as you age—doing crossword puzzles…learning a new language…exercising and eating well. But what about creating daily to-do lists? Or trying to complete the daily Wordle in five minutes or less?
Here are five creative, fun ways to keep your brain sharp, no matter what your age, from brain-health expert Cynthia R. Green, PhD…
- Play against the clock.
The cognitive areas in the brain that are most challenged by aging include those that allow us to think fast and process information efficiently…that hold or sustain attention…and that think nimbly, which is crucial for multitasking. These all factor into memory, and they tend to wane as we grow older.
Brain booster: Add a time element to some of your usual intellectual pursuits, such as trying to beat the clock when playing Wordle or filling out The New York Times spelling bee. This forces you to pay attention, work quickly and think flexibly. You can use your own timer for your favorite word games, aiming for a number that feels challenging but doable.
Other suggestions: The New York Times online crossword puzzle has a built-in timer, and some word games, such as Boggle, include a beat-the-clock element. Or set a timer for one minute, and challenge yourself to name a certain number of winter sports…car models…fruits and veggies…etc.
This sort of play-based training doesn’t require a huge time commitment. Even quick five-minute bursts of activity each day can make a difference in your processing time, focus and ability to multitask.
- Chat with friends.
The pandemic has made it difficult to spend time with friends and loved ones over the last few years, but it’s worth the extra effort.
Brain booster: Schedule time to socialize with friends—doing so may cut your risk for memory impairment in half!
Conversing with friends is an opportunity to exercise many thinking skills in an informal way—it hones your ability to focus and keeps you thinking on your toes (there’s that nimble thinking again) by requiring you to toggle between speaking and listening. It also challenges your brain to hold pieces of information so you don’t constantly interrupt the other person.
The payoff can be almost immediate. In a University of Michigan study, subjects performed better on short-term memory tests after spending just 10 minutes conversing with another person.
Over the long term, enjoying the company of friends and loved ones even may reduce dementia risk for individuals with a genetic predisposition toward it.
Having a friend by your side also can make it easier for you to participate in brain-healthy activities, such as taking long walks or doing other types of exercise…attending a concert or lecture…or traveling to one of your bucket-list destinations.
- Give the Green Mediterranean diet a go.
By now you’ve heard a lot about the Mediterranean diet and how effective it is for supporting brain health. This eating plan is heavy on fruits and vegetables…healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, salmon and avocados…beans…and whole grains. Also, this diet minimizes consumption of red meat, poultry and sugar. Dozens of studies, including a 2021 Neurology study, found that eating this way preserves memory and prevents shrinkage in the brain’s memory centers.
One reason the Mediterranean diet enhances brain health: It is high in polyphenols—anti-inflammatory plant compounds found in berries, green veggies and other produce that can cross the blood-brain barrier. This means that they physically travel into the brain, including those regions involved in memory. Once there, the polyphenols grab onto health- and memory-damaging free radicals—metabolic byproducts that cause neurons to age faster—and carry them out of the brain.
Brain booster: A new tweak to the brain-healthy diet may render it even more beneficial. A Green Mediterranean diet includes three to four cups of green tea and one-quarter cup of walnuts per day…additional servings of vegetables and fruits…almost no red meat…and more plant-based protein. (Studies usually use Wolffia globosa, a high-protein aquatic plant commonly called “duckweed,” which is rich in polyphenols.)
Promising findings: In a new Israeli study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 284 sedentary adults were assigned to follow one of three eating plans—a standard “healthy” calorie-controlled diet…a low-calorie Mediterranean diet…or the Green Mediterranean diet. Results: After 18 to 24 months, the adults in both Mediterranean-diet groups showed significantly less brain shrinkage, and the effect was even more pronounced in the Green-Med group, especially in participants over 50 years old. Green Mediterranean diet subjects also experienced improved insulin sensitivity, which is linked with decreased risk for dementia in the future.
Walnuts and green tea are rich in polyphenols—the leaves of the tea are minimally processed, leaving more of the beneficial compounds in place. Duckweed is high in polyphenols, too, though not widely available. You can reap similar benefits by incorporating multiple sources of polyphenol-rich foods such as berries, dark leafy green veggies, green tea, walnuts and olive oil into your daily diet while reducing the amount of red meat you eat.
- Read more.
Research conducted by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center linked lifelong reading with a reduced risk for future cognitive decline, possibly by facilitating the creation of new neural connections. Reading is a wonderful way to engage our brains in creative thought, exploration, planning and problem-solving.
Brain booster: Read more…and read more things on paper. Before the advent of computers and smartphones, people read on paper only. Now, one-third of Americans read a combination of e-books and paper books, according to the Pew Research Center. But reading on electronic devices just isn’t the same—it can cause eyestrain, and a 2022 Scientific Reports study found that it creates an overactive environment in the brain that reduces reading comprehension.
- Make lists.
List-making is an excellent cognitive tool. Writing down each task requires you to pay close attention to the information you wish to remember, and placing it in an organizational structure such as a list helps cement it into your memory. To-do lists also help you get more things done, which research shows frees up space in your mind for other plans, tasks and challenges.
Brain booster: Make lots of lists—for your daily chores, menus, groceries and other things—and write them out by hand.