Forgetful graphic

Worried because your brain seems to be letting you down? You forget things? Can’t remember why you left the room? Where you put your glasses? Whether you turned off the iron? A name? An appointment?

Someone told me that as long as you realize you forgot something, you’re ok. It’s when you don’t even have a clue that you should start being concerned. So far, so good, but I still can’t help but worry now and again.

I know I’m not alone. An estimated 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. Those numbers are expected to almost triple by 2050.

As we age, our brains don’t function as well as they did when we were younger. That’s normal. While memory loss may be the thing we notice most, we may also be a little slower at processing information and making decisions. It’s called cognitive aging and it’s not the same as Alzheimer’s.

We know what to do to keep our bodies in shape, but what about our brains? The Institute of Medicine (IOM) says there are several things we can do to protect our cognitive health as we age.

How to exercise your brain

1. Be physically active

Studies have shown that physical exercise improves the speed at which we process information. It also helps get more oxygen to the brain and stimulates growth factors. Portland neurologist Dr. Eric Dinnerstein recommends 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week. Listen to this podcast episode with Liz Johnson for a little inspiration on staying active as you age.

2. Reduce cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking

Heart disease is a significant cause of vascular dementia. Some studies also link it to Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Manage medications

Older adults are prescribed an average of more than one dozen drugs a year.  Close to half belong to a class called anticholinergics. They block neurotransmitters in the brain and are used to treat, among other things, asthma, muscle spasms, depression, and sleep disorders. Studies have shown that people who take these drugs are more likely to develop dementia than those who don’t. Whatever medications you take, it’s important to review them with your doctor on a regular basis.

Ready to add more to your brain routine?

Four more things you can do:

4. Get adequate sleep

5. If you have a sleep disorder, get treatment

6. Be socially and intellectually engaged

7. Continually seek opportunities to learn

We may not learn something new as quickly as a younger person, but we can still learn — and keep — the information. “The idea is to utilize a variety of activities and challenges,” says Dr. Dinnerstein. “Learn to dance, to swim, to play a new instrument. Learn a new language or read a book in a genre you’re not familiar with. Basically, this newness is cognitively stimulating.” 

It’s reassuring and motivating to know that as we age, there are lots of things we can do to keep our brains sharp. We just need to do them! And remember this. Our brains may be aging, but we make up for it with all the wisdom and experience we’ve gained over our lifetimes!

Here’s another podcast episode that might provide some inspiration. Forced into lockdown because of COVID, in 2020, then 86-year-old Hazell Jacobs from South London decided to start writing a weekly blog about her collection of scarves. She’s only now winding down and will soon write her final post. I doubt it will be the last we hear of her! I interviewed her for my podcast in November 2020: Looking forward to the future one scarf at a time.

What do you do to exercise your brain?