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AARP Smart Guide to Keeping Your Memory Sharp

Tips for keeping your brain healthy and active as you age


spinner image outline of pink brain with filing cabinet drawers in it
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Caspar Benson/Getty Images; Flavio Coelho/Getty Images; Noun Project)

Just like the rest of your body, your brain changes as you age, and memory loss can become an issue. Although there is no guaranteed solution to memory loss, you can modify your risk and adapt certain lifestyle changes to help keep your brain as healthy and sharp as possible. We’ve rounded up 22 tips from an array of medical professionals that may help you improve your memory and maintain overall brain wellness.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. Consult your physician to determine what’s best for your situation.

 

WHERE TO START

1. Review your medication side effects

If you’ve felt a little foggy lately, it might be time to look at the side effects of your medications. Benzodiazepines, which treat anxiety and seizures​; tricyclic antidepressants (older class); narcotic painkillers (opioids); sleeping aids; incontinence drugs;​ and even some antihistamines can cause brain fog. Be sure to consult your health care professional before stopping or reducing the dosage on any prescribed medications, and always be upfront with your health care team on all medications and supplements you’re taking.

2. Review medication dosages

“Changes in the body [due to normal aging] affect how medications are metabolized and cleared, and certain medications — if they’re not dosed appropriately — can be potentially harmful, affect memory and cause brain fog,” says Martine Sanon, M.D., an associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. If you’re experiencing new or sudden brain fog, make an appointment with your primary care physician to review all the medications and supplements you take. Discuss with your doctor whether these medications are necessary, and ask about possible drug interactions. You may be able to review your entire medication list with a pharmacist or other qualified health care professional in person, by phone or via video chat. Medicare Part D covers this service. It’s called a comprehensive medication review (CMR).

spinner image person walking into maze
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

3. Take the cognitive assessment on Staying Sharp

AARP Staying Sharp is an online program that shows you how to build habits that support your brain health. For those who want deeper insights, AARP members or those registered on aarp.org can take the free cognitive assessment to see how they perform that day on certain aspects of cognition, including reasoning, memory and attention. You can take the assessment every 30 days.

4. Schedule a memory screening

A memory screening, covered yearly by Medicare Part B for those who are 65 or older, should be part of your annual wellness visit. The screening can check for conditions including dementia, depression, anxiety or delirium. Based on your results, your doctor can work with you on a plan.

5. Check hormone levels

In women, changes in hormone levels during perimenopause (typically from the late 30s to mid-50s) and menopause (on average around age 51) can affect memory. Though you might not feel so sharp when hormone production first drops, once the body recalibrates to the new hormone levels, the fog should clear. “In those situations, it would be good to see a gynecologist to talk about the potential role hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could play,” says Joel Salinas, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of neurology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and chief medical officer for Isaac Health, an online dementia care service.

6. Check your blood pressure

Untreated high blood pressure — 130/80 or higher — in midlife can affect dementia risk later in life. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or less, and maintaining this is critically important to reduce the risk of developing dementia. High blood pressure hardens your arteries, including the arteries in your brain, which will eventually impede the flow of blood and oxygen into the brain and debris out of it. “We’re not as good at getting rid of stuff because our arteries and veins aren’t doing their job as well as possible,” due to age says Gregg Day, M.D., a neurologist and memory specialist at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

7. Have your cholesterol checked

Having high cholesterol — a total of 240 mg/dl or more — is a risk factor for several different types of dementia. Most healthy adults should have their cholesterol checked during a routine physical every four to six years, though some individuals should have their cholesterol checked more frequently. As with your blood pressure, it’s important to manage your cholesterol levels through diet and lifestyle changes, medication, or both.  Some may be able to keep their cholesterol under control with a heart-healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and high in fiber. It helps to maintain a healthy weight, exercise most days, quit smoking and limit drinks to one per day for women and two for men. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, your doctor can prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications.

8. Be on the alert for sleep apnea

If your partner says you snore, gasp or sometimes stop breathing when you’re asleep, you might have sleep apnea — a potentially serious disorder. Waking with dry mouth or a headache and feeling sleepy throughout the day are other signs. Sleep apnea is a major, but treatable, risk factor for dementia. To get treatment and lower your risk, you’ll need to do a sleep study to get a diagnosis, but that no longer means you have to sleep in a lab while hooked up to machines. Doctors may be able to send you home with a breathing monitor, so you can complete the study from the comfort of your own bed. Medicare covers sleep studies for people suspected to have sleep apnea.

9. Get your hearing checked

Research shows that hearing loss increases your risk for dementia. Mental stimulation is key to brain health, and if you can’t hear, you lose the stimulation from conversations, music, movies and all the other sounds around you. Using a hearing aid restores that vital stimulation, and for individuals at risk for cognitive decline, hearing aids may help lower that risk. AARP members can take the National Hearing Test free from their phone once a year.

spinner image all types of vitamins scattered around
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images)

10. Check vitamin and nutritional deficiencies

If your body isn’t getting the proper nutrients, your brain performance can suffer. Deficiencies in vitamin B12, thiamine and possibly folate, for example, can play a role in memory problems. Most doctors will check for nutritional deficiencies when their patients complain of memory problems. If your doctor doesn’t suggest it, ask that they check your levels of essential vitamins and nutrients and ask specifically to test folate, B12 and thiamine levels as these tests are typically done separately. Low vitamin levels are often easily addressed via supplements. Additionally, certain medications, such as statins, can prevent your gut from taking up all the nutrients from the foods you eat. 

 

HEALTHY HABITS

11. Rest your brain

Your brain needs sleep to function. While you sleep, your brain consolidates memories and clears out unnecessary information. “There’s also evidence that sleep is when the brain clears out some of the toxins that accumulate during the day,” says Zaldy Tan, M.D., a specialist in geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Even one night of poor sleep can have a negative impact on how your brain functions for the next day or so, and a lifetime of poor sleep can raise your risk for dementia. Aim to get at least seven hours of sleep every night, as there is an increased risk associated with getting fewer than 6 hours per night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, the first thing a health professional may ask about is your “sleep hygiene.” That includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every day; keeping your bedroom cool and dark; keeping screens, such as TVs, smartphones and tablets out of your bedroom; and following a relaxing bedtime routine every night. Your doctor might recommend that you start with these practices. If these tips don’t help you sleep better, talk to your doctor about what might be keeping you up at night and how to get the shut-eye you need. It could be your medications or an underlying health condition that needs to be treated. Read our Smart Guide to Sleep for more tips.

12. Exercise your body

You already know that a daily dose of physical activity helps chip away at obesity, diabetes and heart disease — all risk factors for developing dementia down the road. It can also help relieve stress that may keep your brain from performing at its best. Exercise has direct effects on brain health, too. It stimulates production of a substance in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps with nerve cell repair and the formation of connections between brain cells. “It makes it a little easier to remember information when it’s easier to make connections between those brain cells. Some people refer to it as Miracle Grow for the brain,” Salinas says. Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous, and it doesn’t need to cost you anything. “[Doctors] recommend 30 minutes a day, and it can be as easy as walking around your neighborhood outside, which is free,” Sears says. 

13. Exercise your brain

Just as you must keep your body active to stay in good health, you have to keep your mind active, too. Doing the daily crossword, for example, is great, but you should expand beyond that. “Once you get really good at it, you’re not going to get that much benefit,” Salinas says. “There should always be some kind of successive challenge that keeps you engaged and forces you to form new brain connections.” But, he adds, “it shouldn’t be so challenging that you don’t want to engage with it ever again.” Learning something new — like a card game, hobby, musical instrument, new language — will challenge your mind and help boost brain activity. As with physical exercise, it doesn’t take much to reap a benefit, Sears says.

14. Nourish your brain

A healthy diet isn’t only important for heart health. Your brain needs healthy food, vitamins and nutrients, too. Put simply, what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. That means a diet low in saturated fat and added sugars and high in fiber. Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, and avoid highly processed junk food. If you’d like to start with just one or two dietary changes, add leafy greens such as kale, collards, spinach and broccoli. They are high in brain-healthy nutrients, including vitamin K, folate and lutein, which research shows may help slow cognitive decline. Consider adding blueberries or other fruit of blue to red hues. They contain the flavonoid anthocyanin, which has been associated with improved brain performance. “These are things you could do today. I like to first talk about what you can bring into your life as opposed to what to cut,” says Alicia Arbaje, M.D., a doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

spinner image a bunch of avocado halves facing up
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Tanja Ivanova/Getty Images)

15. Adopt a Mediterranean diet

If you want a little more guidance than just “eat right,” evidence suggests that the Mediterranean and MIND diets support brain health. Mediterranean diet simply describes the way that people eat in the Mediterranean region, where research shows many people might live longer and healthier lives. This way of eating emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats found in nuts, olive oil, avocados and some fish. On a Mediterranean diet, you can eat a moderate amount of cheese and yogurt. You’ll favor poultry over red meat, and eat little or no sweets and butter. The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet incorporates aspects of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. It is also primarily plant-based, with an added emphasis on leafy greens and berries, draws on healthy fats and includes little to no meat. Research among people who donated their brains after death for dementia research, show that those who followed either one of the diets showed fewer signs of Alzheimer's in their brains. Staying Sharp has a library of recipes that follow the Mediterranean diet.

16. Limit alcohol

If you drink alcohol often, consider cutting back — especially if you drink more than the recommended daily amount: two drinks a day for men and one for women. Alcohol can have negative effects on brain function in both the long and short term — and not just during the time that you might feel the buzz. “Alcohol is a sedative,” Salinas says. “It lingers in the bloodstream and affects the brain for a day or more. A study that tracked a group of older adults for 30 years found that those who drank the most over that period also lost the most brain mass. If you’re 50-plus, changes in your body will affect how you process alcohol, so consider cutting back or taking a break, perhaps in Dry January.

17. Manage your stress levels

Stress can impact brain function today and in the long run. When you’re stressed out, your brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to remember the simple things that you might usually take for granted — where you parked your car, for example, or that you’ve got to leave work early for a doctor’s appointment, Salinas notes. A little stress from time to time is an unavoidable part of life, but living in a constant state of stress can lead to chronic inflammation that takes a toll on your body. Lifelong stress can raise your risk for health conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, as well as hypertension or high blood pressure. If stress is a regular feature in your day-to-day life, it’s time to get it under control. First, look for stressors you can eliminate. If there’s too much on your plate, figure out what you can take off. Explore stress management techniques that you enjoy. That could be meditation, deep breathing, yoga, a daily walk, socializing with friends, practicing a hobby or taking a daily break to read a novel. There are so many ways to de-stress. What you don’t want to do is rely on prescription meds (or alcohol and recreational drugs) to keep your stress at bay, Day says. “[Antianxiety medications] lower our alertness and attention. That’s, by design, what they do.”

18. Stay social

Loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for dementia. Like physical exercise, Salinas says, socializing stimulates the brain and may reduce risk for dementia. Part of that, he says, is that socializing engages your mind. “So I would say that a phone call is better than a text message, a Zoom call is better than a phone call, and in person is better than a Zoom call because all of those things are just giving you more information to stimulate your brain.”

19. Mix it up

You can combine many of these healthy habits into a single activity with multiple benefits. Consider volunteering, for example, which might provide physical activity along with the opportunity to socialize, learn a skill and engage your mind. A dance class could challenge you physically while offering social interaction. A cooking club with your friends could help you adopt a healthier diet while you socialize and learn to prepare new dishes. There’s no limit to the ways in which you can combine healthy habits into enjoyable activities.

 

MAINTAINING MOMENTUM

20. Chunk information

Divide larger amounts of information into bite-size pieces, Salinas suggests. For example, a string of numbers like a credit card number will be easier to remember in groups of three digits at a time. You can chunk lists of names or grocery items, too. Another tip on making associations is instead of trying to remember a grocery list of eggs, milk, flour, sugar and baking soda, try to just remember that you’re baking a cake and need all those ingredients. This reduces the amount of information you need to remember and relies on longer-term stored information.

21. Avoid multitasking

When you were younger, it might have seemed easy to talk on the phone while watching a TV show and remember the information from each. But it’s more difficult as you get older. “When your attention is split between multiple things, you’re less likely to put that brain spotlight on the information that you want to record,” Salinas says. He explains that it’s not that you can’t remember it; it’s that you never committed it to memory in the first place.

22. Establish a daily routine

When you have a daily routine, and go through the same steps every day throughout your day, Sears says, “you're more likely to realize if you missed something.” Now that you’ve learned dozens of habits that could help improve your memory, add some of them to your daily routine today. Getting into a routine reduces the demands on active decision-making, which can free up cognitive processing for other activities. For instance, if you make coffee every morning, consider taking your medications then as well, so you don’t have to work as hard to remember your medications — because you’ll never forget your coffee!

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This was reviewed by Justin B. Miller, Ph.D., a board-certified neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology at Cleveland Clinic Nevada. He has expertise in dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and lifestyle interventions.

This was reviewed by Andrew Budson, M.D., the chief of cognitive behavioral neurology at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System and the author of Seven Steps to Managing Your Aging Memory. He has expertise in Alzheimer’s disease, memory and dementia.

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