Like any other part of your body, your brain needs daily exercise. Neglecting your brain health can leave you vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
As a neuroscientist, I’ve spent decades guiding patients with memory problems through brain-enhancing habits and exercises — most of which I also practice.
Here are seven brain rules I follow to keep my memory sharp as a whip at 81:
1. Choose fiction when you can.
You can learn a lot from non-fiction works, but they’re often organized in a way that lets you jump in based on your personal interests and familiarity with the subject.
Fiction, on the other hand, requires you to exercise your memory, as you go from beginning to end and retain a variety of details, characters, and plots.
Incidentally, I have noticed in my years as a neuropsychiatrist that people with dementia praecox, as one of the first signs of the pervasive disease, often stop reading novels.
2. Never leave an art museum without testing your memory.
My favorite painting for visualization exercises is Edward Hopper’s “Western Motel” which depicts a woman sitting in a sunny motel room.
Start by carefully studying the details until you can see them in your mind. Then describe the painting while looking away.
Did you include the small clock on the bedside table? The gooseneck lamp? The item of clothing on the chair at the bottom right of the painting? Can you recall the colors and composition of the room?
You can do this with any artwork to boost your memory.
3. Keep naps under 90 minutes.
Naps lasting 30 minutes to an hour and a half, between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., have been shown to increase later recall of information coded before the nap.
Several studies have also shown that naps can compensate for poor sleep at night. If you suffer from insomnia, a mid-afternoon nap can improve memory performance.
Over the years, I’ve trained myself to take a nap for exactly half an hour. Some people I know have learned to take a nap for just 15 minutes and then wake up feeling refreshed and invigorated.
4. No party is complete without brain games.
My favorite activity is “20 questions”, where one person (the questioner) leaves the room and the other players select a person, place or thing. The questioner can ask up to 20 questions to guess what the group has decided.
Success depends on the questioner’s ability to keep all the answers clearly in mind and to mentally rule out possible choices based on the answers.
Bridge and chess are also great for exercising your memory: to do well, you need to evaluate previous games, while also considering the future consequences of your past and present decisions.
5. Eat brain foods.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, nutritionist psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, has a great acronym for BRAIN FOODS:
- B: Berries and beans
- R: Rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables
- A: Antioxidants
- I: Include lean proteins and vegetable proteins
- NOT: Nuts
- F: Foods high in fiber and fermented foods
- O: Oils
- O: Foods rich in omega
- D: Dairy
- S: Spices
And good news for chocolate addicts (like me): a 2020 study found that cocoa flavonoids, the ingredients of dark chocolate, can improve episodic memory in healthy young adults.
6. Use pictures for hard-to-remember things.
My wife’s dog, Leah, is a Schipperke (pronounced “SKIP-er-kee”). It’s a distinctive name, but I’d have a hard time remembering it. So to finally be able to answer “What kind of race is it?” at the dog park, i formed the image of a small sailboat (little dog) with a burly skipper holding a huge wrench.
Make a habit of converting anything you have trouble remembering into a wild, weird, or attention-grabbing image.
7. Don’t sit on the couch all day.
A recent study of 82,872 volunteers found that participants aged 80 or older who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity had a lower risk of dementia, compared to inactive adults aged 50 to 69.
Even a simple shift from sedentary non-activity (prolonged sitting, “never walk when you can drive” attitude) to active movement (standing, climbing stairs, walking a mile a day) made a difference.
Housework has also been associated with higher attention and memory scores and better sensory and motor function in older adults.
Dr. Richard Restak, MD, is a neuroscientist and author of 20 books on the human brain, including “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind” and “Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance.” He is currently a Clinical Professor of Neurology at the George Washington Hospital School of Medicine and Health Sciences. In 1992, Dr. Restak received the “Decade Of The Brain Award” from the Chicago Neurosurgical Center.