As you get older, your memory may start slipping. But keeping your brain healthy with mental workouts and simple lifestyle guidelines could help avert something more serious.
Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPHNormal age-related memory loss usually affects your recent memory, rather than your remote memory. For example, you might forget the name of a person you just met, or an item your wife wanted you to pick up from the store. But you would continue to accurately recall memories stored last week, or many years ago.
Luckily, there are ways to fight the memory loss that occurs with aging. A combination of regular mental stimulation and maintaining physical health can keep your mind sharp into your late old age.
Men’s Health: Tips for Keeping Memory Sharp
Some ways to beat back memory loss include:
- Keep your brain active. Challenging your brain and mental abilities is believed to stimulate brain cells and keep your thinking sharp. Reading, writing, developing a new skill, or relearning old skills are ways to give your brain a workout. You also can work on stimulating problem-solving and brain games and puzzles. These mental challenges should be a regular part of your life.
- Let go of stress. Prolonged stress over many weeks has been shown to cause memory loss by altering brain chemistry and damaging the hippocampus, which is where the brain stores new memories.
- Stay socially active. Relationships with other people can improve your mental performance. Social activities often are intellectually stimulating, which prompts good memory function. Friends also can provide support when you're feeling stressed. Research has linked loneliness with an increased risk of memory loss and dementia.
- Exercise. Working out can keep blood flowing to the brain, leaving your brain cells well-nourished with oxygen and nutrients.
- Don't smoke or abuse alcohol. Smokers have been shown to perform worse than nonsmokers in memory studies and tests of thinking skills. Heavy alcohol use is also known to cause memory loss.
- Trauma. Head trauma is one of the major causes of memory loss, as well as something that can cause dementia later in life. Always use a helmet and other protective gear when participating in high-speed activities and contact sports.
How can you tell when your memory loss has become something worse, like a symptom of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? Here are some warning signs:
- Forgetting things at a noticeably increased rate. Everyone occasionally forgets about plans they have or where they’ve put things, but if you find yourself missing scheduled activities much more frequently or misplacing items a lot more than you used to, that could be a sign that you need to have checked out.
- Forgetting how to perform activities you've done many times before. No longer being able to balance a checkbook is one example.
- Finding it difficult to learn new things. You just can't grasp something that's being explained to you, even though you feel it should be simple.
- Repeating yourself. Telling the same stories, asking the same questions, or repeating the same phrases during a single conversation could be a sign of advanced memory loss.
- Confusion. If you're suffering serious memory lapses, you might end up getting lost in a familiar place. You might also put something in an inappropriate place — your wallet in the oven, for example — because you can't remember where it should be kept.
If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, you should go see your family physician. The doctor will ask you questions to objectively test your memory and thinking skills, and do a physical exam and possibly other diagnostic tests. He may have suggestions to help you improve your memory function, and might even be able to prescribe medications known to help with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, if necessary.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Men’s Health Center.