Follow these doctors’ tips to sharpen your memory
If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, colloquial wisdom indicates that a puzzle a day keeps the senior moments away. But do focused activities like Sudoku or the Wordle really help protect your memory as you age?
According to Dr. Rebecca Stetzer, geriatric specialist at Albany Med, they might—if you enjoy them and they challenge you. But they are worth much more as part of a holistic approach.
“The best way to engage cognitively is to be learning new things,” says Stetzer, who is an associate professor, assistant dean, and part of the faculty for the Geriatric Fellowship program, in addition to seeing patients of her own aged 75 and older.
Stetzer says if you do love puzzles, multifaceted ones are best, especially if they’re also social. Bridge is a good example. “You have to keep track of strategy and you’re interacting at the same time so you’re doing multiple things at once,” she says.
Stetzer cited a favorite study showing that learning new things can actually increase people’s brain matter volume. In the study, MRIs of participants learning to juggle showed similar growth whether they were 20 years old or 60—and whether they actually became proficient at juggling or not.
The mind-body connection
One important way to keep your mind sharp is to keep your heart healthy. Dr. Roberta Miller, an internal medical specialist who just recently retired from private practice, devoted much of her career to caring for homebound individuals, first through the Veterans Administration and then through Homedical Administrative Associates, founded by her husband Dr. David Hornick in 2004.
“I think that one of the things that’s very important is that there has to be healthy living prior to aging because it’s all connected,” Miller says. “It’s very important people are aware that dementia is a slowly progressive illness and there may be ways to forestall it or prevent it by having a healthy lifestyle, for sure.”
Miller suggests regular visits to a primary care provider to screen for issues such as hypertension, which can lead to brain damage and dementia in the future. She also says it’s important to have your pharmacist and primary physician monitor medications for possible interactions, since confusion can be a side effect of some drugs. One helpful resource is the American Geriatric Society’s Beers Criteria, which lists medications, including over-the-counter varieties, that can be dangerous to the aging brain.
And then there are the drugs Miller says no one needs. The brain-enhancing supplements that populate television infomercials and online pop-up ads are a waste of money, in her experience. “There are a bunch of them on TV to improve your memory,” she says. “There’s absolutely no proof by science that these are helpful. They haven’t been peer-reviewed.”
Stetzer also emphasized the effect of cardiovascular health on cognition. She recommends following a Mediterranean diet, which is characterized by high consumption of olive oil and plant foods, moderate wine-drinking with meals, moderate intake of fish, seafood, poultry, eggs, and fermented dairy products such as yogurt and cheese, and a small amount of red and processed meats and sweets. “You can always feel good about it when you’re putting lots of olive oil in your food,” she says.
Friends make life memorable
One often-overlooked component of brain health is simply to have some fun, especially with friends. Stetzer says exercise is even more beneficial if you’re socially active. Tennis, in particular, has been shown to be helpful because it’s strategic, requires quick reactions, and is social. Table tennis, for that matter, is a great choice as well. Even a walk with friends is better than walking solo.
“The people that I see age well are those that are interested and engaged and have a reason to get up,” Stetzer says. “They’re volunteering or they’ve got a busy social schedule.”
Miller advises staying on top of regular screenings for hearing, eyesight, and cognition as one way to avoid the pitfalls of isolation. “As we age, our world tends to get smaller, and people tend to get more isolated,” she says. “And we have sensory loss, such as visual and hearing, and those all contribute to isolation and so it’s very important that those things are looked into.”
Enhancing the aging brain
While Stetzer’s patients may be aging, that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. “There’s so much negativity about it, but one of the things we see with aging brains is that with time, you have more neural connections. And also, you see more use of both hemispheres of the brain,” she says.
So while some minor lapses in memory may feel frustrating, Stetzer says there are upsides. “Circuits run a little slower and it’s harder to run multiple circuits at once”—think of walking from one room to another and forgetting why you went there—but “you’re able to make deeper connections, you’re able to have that wisdom of experience and the capacity for complex thought,” she says. “The privilege of working with older adults is (that) I see so many of those benefits.”
Seniors playing bridge photo: iStockphoto.com/Drazen Zigic.