As we grow older, we may see changes in the ways our mind and memory continue to function. Certain cognitive processes may slow down, making it more challenging to learn new things or eliminate distractions that hinder our memory.1
Maybe you forgot the name of an acquaintance at dinner last week—or you just can’t remember where you put your keys. Situations like this can certainly be frustrating, but fortunately, there are a number of habits and exercises you can practice to help maintain your brain function.
Here are nine tips to help keep the mind sharp:
Engage multiple senses.
Research reveals that the more senses you engage, the more active your brain.1 One study had adults examine a series of neutral images, each one paired with a smell.2 Later these adults were asked to look at different images (without the scent-associated pairing), and then indicate—out of all the images—which ones they’d seen before. Researchers found that participants had a better recall for the pictures that featured smells and that the brain was more active when they looked at those pictures.
So to stimulate your mind, make a point of engaging multiple senses at the same time. Sign up for a pottery class, cook aromatic foods, or take a warm bath with essential oils.
Aim to get enough sleep.
If you don’t get much rest, you’ll find that even simple tasks like running errands or cooking a meal take more effort than they should. Not getting enough sleep is also linked to focus issues and short-term memory problems.3
Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.3
Make exercise a top priority.
Working the skeletal muscles can also help to work the mind.4 Exercise not only helps stimulate and strengthen the connections between the synapses, or brain cells, but it also promotes the development of new nerve cells. This makes the brain more efficient and adaptive.4
And research has shown that the benefits of exercise are linked to more than just the brain. Physical activity reduces blood pressure, stabilizes cholesterol levels, and lessens mental stress.5 Both resistance training and cardio offer a number of benefits.
Consume a healthy diet.
Surely, you’ve heard the term “brain food.” Good nutrition promotes both a healthy body and a strong mind. For instance, research indicates that people who consume a Mediterranean diet of fish, unsaturated oils, produce, nuts, and other plant-based proteins are less likely to experience cognitive issues or develop dementia.4
Enjoy a meaningful social life.
Cultivating friendships and simply getting to know new people can enhance the brain’s executive function, which includes our short-term memory and our ability to screen distractions.3 Even short conversations can help to sharpen the mind.3
And that’s not all: A fulfilling social network is also linked to lower blood pressure and a longer life expectancy.4 It all boils down to developing and preserving both our neurological and our social connections.
Reset with yoga or meditation.
In addition to relaxation, yoga and meditation are known to improve cognitive performance.6 By paying close attention to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations you experience, you can leverage multiple sensations at once, manage stimuli, and ultimately work your brain.
Quit smoking—and steer clear of secondhand smoke.
Did you know that smoking is linked to a thinner cerebral cortex and mental decline?7 A number of chemicals in cigarettes have negative effects on the brain, and secondhand smoke has similar drawbacks.7
If you don’t smoke but spend a significant amount of time around friends or family who do, gently explain the risks and encourage them to quit.
Rather than wasting precious mental energy trying to remember things you can simply add to your calendar or grocery list, take advantage of a planner or any other organizational tool you’ve been meaning to use. This could help to increase your focus.1
Similarly, think about removing clutter from your home and office to reduce distractions. Keeping key items like keys, glasses, and your gym bag in the same place can help to reduce the need to remember where you left these things.
People who are depressed, stressed, or anxious generally score lower on cognitive tests.4 While this doesn’t necessarily point to cognitive decline, stress management tools like a healthy diet, exercise, and adequate sleep—tools we’ve discussed at length in this post—can keep your stress in check.
Harvard Medical School Staff. 7 ways to keep your memory sharp at any age. Harvard Health Publishing, HEALTHbeat. Accessed January 22, 2019.
Keller A. Odor memories: the first sniff counts. Current Biology. 2009;19:21.
WebMD staff. Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp. WebMD. 2017. Accessed January 22, 2019.
Harvard Medical School Staff. 12 ways to keep your brain young. 2006, updated 2018. Harvard Health Publishing. Accessed January 22, 2019.
American Heart Association Staff. Stress and Heart Health. 2014. American Heart Association. Accessed January 22, 2019.
Gothe NP et al. Differences in Brain Structure and Function Among Yoga Practitioners and Controls. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience. 2018;12:26.
Preidt R. Smoking Linked to Damage in the Brain. WebMD, HealthDay. 2015. Accessed January 22, 2019.