Many people assume that memory lapses are part of the aging process. However, in recent years, we have identified important ways to stop-and sometimes reverse-the brain changes that are associated with aging.

Anyone who does not have neurological impairment can sharpen mental skills by following a four-pronged strategy of memory training, stress reduction, physical conditioning and a brain-friendly diet.

Work Your Brain

Scientists who tracked two groups of people discovered that those in the mentally active group-who played board games, read, did puzzles, etc.-had a 630/o lower risk of developing dementia compared with the group that rarely exercised their brains.

Other studies have shown that any mental activity-work or play-is associated with better brain health. How to put mental activities to work for you...

Cross-train your brain. Mental activities should involve workouts for both the left and right side of your brain.

In right-handed people, left-brain functions include logical analysis, language and speech, reading, writing and math, as well as symbol recognition.

Right-brain functions cover spatial tasks such as reading maps, artistic and musical activities, emotional perception and a sense of humor. Functions reverse in the majority of people who are left-handed.

Choose activities that you enjoy because these are the ones that you'll stick with. Then exercise each side of your brain in a more or less alternating fashion. Examples...

Left-brain activities: Word games, crossword puzzles and reading.

Right-brain activities: playing a musical instrument, jigsaw puzzles, three-dimensional spatial puzzles and games.

Many activities that combine logical, verbal and spatial tasks exercise both sides of the brain.

Examples: Canasta, bridge, chess and many board games.

Build up from simple activities to more demanding ones. While an activity should be stimulating, pace yourself and keep your expectations reasonable.

Examples: Those who have mentally demanding jobs may not need more mental stimulation at home and should opt for relaxing choices instead. People who work extensively! with words should consider activities that will challenge their spatial abilities rather than verbal skills, and vice-versa.

Reduce Stress

Severe stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which has been identified with decreased memory performance. Studies have shown that stress can shrink a key memory center of the, brain. Being actively engaged mentally is a good way to relieve stress, but there is much more to the stress-relief "package.', Other important ways to lower stress...

Give up multitasking. Multitasking is often admired, but ultimately, it is counterproductive. Attempting to do several things at once is distracting and stressful. When tempted to multitask-for example, talking on a cellphone while watering the lawn or cooking while housecleaning-stop and focus on just one thing at a time until you have completed that objective.

Get enough sleep. In a 74-day study, volunteers sleeping four to six hours a night-a range common to many adults-showed significant deficits in memory performance. Interestingly, the sleep-curtailed volunteers had no sense of the extent of their cognitive impairment.

To get proper sleep, avoid late-evening liquids, which cause you to get up to use the bathroom, and avoid exercise that hypes you up so much that you can't settle down. Establish a regular bedtime and wake time. Avoid daytime naps that last for more than 20 minutes.

Get enough sleep to feel rested-for most people age 50 or older six to seven hours is enough.

Learn a "relaxation response." There are many reliable ways to relax, including meditation and self-hypnosis as well as yoga, tai chi and other gentle exercises. For a real treat, have a massage. And don't forget to regularly kick back and just take it easy.

Get And Stay Fit

Exercise is vital to well-being, including brain health. Everyone should have a regular fitness program. Key elements...

Start an aerobic activity. Anything that gets your heart rate up for a sustained period, such as brisk walking, logging and swimming, markedly improves the brain's frontal lobe function. This is the brain's "executive control," which handles complex reasoning, planning and memory. Such exercise also lowers the risk for Alzheimer's disease. Exercise at least 30 minutes, three times a week.

Build a complete program. In addition to aerobic exercise, a good program should include strength training, stretching and balance work, because together, these will help prevent injury. Check with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.

Eat Smart

Diet has a tremendous impact on how a brain ages. Keeping to a normal weight is also vital for your mental functioning. A high body mass index (BMI) is associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's along with other health risks that can ultimately cause memory loss and dementia. Key in establishing a brain-.friendly diet...

Get your omegas straight. Americans eat an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in corn oil and many other vegetable oils as well as in fried and processed foods. Atkins and other low-carb diets include a hefty portion of omega-6s, which can create health risks and may contribute to chronic brain inflammation, setting the stage for brain impairment.

What to do: Eat one serving pet day of omega-3s-found in high-fat fish, such as salmon and tuna, and in avocados, olive oil, nuts and other foods. Also consider a dally supplement of 1,000 milligrams (mg) of fish oil.

Fight free radicals. Free radicals, the cell damaging byproducts of metabolism, are always present in the body, including the brain, causing cells to lose structure and function. Antioxidants are the front line for fighting off free radicals. Most fruits and vegetables-in particular prunes, raisins, blueberries and spinach-are high in antioxidants.

Vitamin E (400 international units [IU]) and vitamin C (500 mg) supplements-taken together -seem to lower dementia risk.

Note: Consult your doctor about whether vitamin E is safe for you-and how much you should take.

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