Everyone’s heard the old saying “Use it or lose it.” There is some truth to that adage: Our brain has a wonderful ability to adapt and change—even as we age. This ability is called neuroplasticity, and it means that we can keep learning for as long as we want to. But just as with any other muscle, our brain needs regular exercise.   

According to experts, a good brain workout is one that is a bit challenging and teaches you something new. Maybe you’ve always wanted to try your hand at photography or throwing a pot. Or maybe you’re planning a trip to Italy and you’d like to brush up on your Italian. Have you been working on your memoirs? You could join a class to get tips on how to organize your notes, and share your journey with others. If you long for something more energetic, there are many types of dance classes. Any activity that keeps you challenged and focused will stimulate your brain and improve your memory.  

Many lifestyle factors affect memory. Experts recommend taking the following steps to improve memory and brain health: 

Get regular physical exercise. “The best thing for memory is exercise,” says Rick Huganir, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Department of Neuroscience. Researchers are not clear exactly how it works, but it has to do with getting more blood to your brain. Physical exercise also helps prevent diseases that can be damaging to memory, such as diabetes and hypertension. 

Aerobic exercise is the best kind: “if it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain,” is a good mantra to follow. Try taking exercise breaks throughout the day, whether you are still working or retired; even a few minutes of getting your heart rate going will help “reboot” your brain. Activities that require hand-eye coordination (such as any racket sport and many dance classes) are particularly good for the memory circuits. 

Housework and yardwork may also count as aerobic exercise sometimes. Also, if you’re pressed for time, you could do a power walk through the grocery store or the mall and complete errands at the same time as you fill your exercise quota. 

Handle any medical problems, especially circulatory diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and stroke—all of these conditions can damage the brain and affect your memory. A nationwide trial called the Sprint-Mind study showed that intensive lowering of blood pressure reduces the risk for mild cognitive impairment—which is a risk for dementia. Hormone imbalance in both women and men, including thyroid problems, may also be of concern. 

Get enough sleep. Sleep apnea and stress are two sleep disruptions that can damage brain functions, including memory. Experts believe that 95% of adults need 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep, whereas many of us are getting by on 6 or less. Sleep is necessary for the essential function of memory consolidation, which occurs only in the deepest stage of sleep. You may have heard some or all of the following suggestions before, but they really are the best way to begin sleeping more and better: 

  • Turn off all screens at least an hour before bed; the blue light emitted by TVs, phones, and computers causes wakefulness and interferes with the hormones that cause sleepiness, such as melatonin.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends and holidays.
  • Cut back on caffeine if you suspect that it's interfering with your sleep. People react differently to caffeine; you may be so sensitive that even one morning cup of coffee can keep you from sleeping at night, or it may have no effect at all on you.

Review your medications with your doctor; some, such as anxiety meds, can affect memory. Other medications may also have side effects that affect memory as well as other brain functions. Your doctor should also check for possible drug interactions. Be sure to also tell your doctor about any supplements that you take regularly. 

Stay social! Crosswords and sudoku are great for keeping you sharp, but it’s even better to play Bridge, Scrabble, or other challenging games with friends. Keeping your memory healthy is as good an excuse as any for getting out and getting together! Now that more and more people have been vaccinated, social rules in more places are being eased somewhat. A 2008 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that people with the most active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline. Remember to get your hearing tested at least yearly, as it often declines gradually and can contribute to social isolation.  

Manage your stress. Stress is not something you can avoid; in fact, stress is a part of life. Rather than try to avoid stress itself, the key is to look at how you react to it, physically and emotionally. Over time, poorly managed stress reactions can destroy brain cells, damaging the areas in the brain that deal with memory, making it harder to make new memories or retrieve older ones. Here are a few ways to manage stress: 

  • Learn to meditate. Meditation is easy to learn and has wonderful benefits, both physical and mental. Besides helping you with daily stress relief, meditation can help improve memory and focus, and reduce anxiety. On the physical side, a regular meditation practice has been scientifically shown to help with chronic pain, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 
  • Learn to say “No.”If your to-do list is one of the sources of your stress, take steps to shorten it.  
  • Learn how to play. Finish this saying: “All work and no play…” If you can learn to bring joy and spontaneity back into your life, you might feel a little happier and more relaxed.
  • Simplify. Step outside the Rat Race and slow your life down a bit. If you can stop—or at least reduce—“multitasking,” you’ll enjoy the peaceful Zen feeling of focusing on one thing at a time. 

Laugh more. Laughing and responding to funny situations or jokes requires several areas of the brain to work together, stimulating learning and creativity, according to HelpGuide. Laughter also relaxes you physically, by alternately tensing and relaxing your facial and stomach muscles. Dose yourself with your favorite radio or TV comedy shows, or look up on-demand programs on cable. As the saying goes, “Laughter is the best medicine”! 

Eat healthy. Is there a memory diet? Not exactly. But some foods are better for a healthy brain than others, and some foods are definitely NOT so good for your brain. The best overall diet, as you probably know, is based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, “healthy” fats—olive oil, nuts, fish—and lean protein. Here are some additional pointers: 

  • Get omega-3 fatty acids, either from coldwater fatty fish such as salmon, trout, herring, and tuna; or from walnuts, flaxseed, winter squash, pumpkin seeds, kidney beans, and soybeans. 
  • Limit calories from saturated fat—it increases the risk of dementia and impairs concentration and memory.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables—they are full of antioxidants, important in protecting brain cells from free radical damage, thus improving memory.
  • Drink green tea—it contains polyphenols, which protect against free radical damage and may enhance memory and alertness.
  • Have some red wine (in moderation), or grape juice, or eat fresh grapes and berries—all of these contain resveratrol, an antioxidant which boosts blood flow to the brain and in doing so may improve cognitive function, including memory, according to several recent studies.


Johns Hopkins Medicine: Memory: Five Ways to Protect Your Brain Health 


HelpGuide/Healthy Aging/How to Improve Your Memory 


Medical News Today: Social Activity in Your 60s May Lower Dementia Risk by 12% 


National Institute on Aging: Cognitive Health and Older Adults