Most people assume that everyone's mental capacities diminish with age. Fortunately, that's not true. New studies show that cognitive decline doesn't occur in healthy older brains. With the right kind of physical and mental stimulation, most people can keep their cognitive abilities near maximum capacity as they age. Your brain continues to repair cell damage and form new neural networks throughout life. In fact, people who are active mentally can actually improve their performance on intelligence tests after age 60.
Exercises that work...
Oxygenate Your Brain
As we age, reduced oxygen levels in our blood may contribute to memory impairment.
Example: A 75-year-old uses approximately two-thirds less oxygen per minute than a younger adult.
Recent study: Sedentary individuals ages 55 to 70 who enlisted in a fourth-month aerobic exercise program did significantly better on neuropsychological tests than subjects who didn't perform aerobic exercise. Researches attributed improved cognitive performance to increased blood flow to the brain.
Any aerobic exercise-walking, swimming, biking, etc.-also increases oxygenation of the brain and can improve memory as well as mood and speed of decision-making. Brisk walking for 30 minutes daily is adequate.
Use All Your Senses
We gather information with the senses-and we are more likely to remember information when we use multiple senses.
Example: It's common to forget the name of someone you just met, partly because you only use one sense (hearing) when you're introduced. The next time you meet someone, bring more of your senses into play. Shake hands. Notice his/her scent and appearance. The more sensory details you accumulate, the more likely you are to store the name in memory.
Exercise: Sniff a bar of sweet-smelling soap, and pay attention to how it looks and feels. Then read a paragraph from a book or magazine. Sniff the soap again. The next day, smell the soap again. You'll probably recall more details of the paragraph than you would if you did not sniff the soap.
Memorize Something Daily
Memory is like a muscle-the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.
The brain stimulation that occurs while you're learning new material triggers an increase in the number of dendrites (spider-like sensors on nerves) as well as synapses (gaps between the nerve cells).
Exercise: Learn one new word a day. Write it down on a notepad, and rehearse it in your mind a few times. The next day, write down a new word and review the one from the day before. Doing this daily will increase your vocabulary as well as your ability to retain new information of all kinds.
Smart idea: Use a free online service, such as A.Word.A.Day. To subscribe, go to their Web site at http://wordsmith.org/awad. As an alternative, choose a word you don't know from your daily newspaper.
Improve Memory with Music
Music is a highly effective tool for improving brain function. The type of music is not important. Music of your choice reduces emotional and mental stress, both of which interfere with memory. Singing or playing a musical instrument stimulates the cerebellum and improves your ability to organize and recall new information that is presented to you.
A 1993 study of college students reported in Nature found that those who listened to Mozart for 10 minutes prior to a standardized intelligence test raised their scores to 119 (from 110 following silence).
Exercise: Practice a musical instrument or sing for 15 minutes several times daily. It doesn't matter if you can't carry a tune. Just the act of singing-accompanying words with rhythm-makes information easier to remember.
Helpful: If there's something specific you want to memorize-a phone number, address or shopping list-sing it out loud. This brings different parts of the brain into play and aids memorization.
The brain is thought to store related information in discrete areas. When you recall a word from your long-term memory, there's a temporary increase in nerve activity in the locations of other nearby words. That's why the practice of association-linking certain words or concepts together-is an effective technique to practice to improve memory.
Exercise: Make a list of 20 simple words- dog, cat, bird, shovel, etc. Read the list of words once, then write as many of them as you can remember on a blank piece of paper. If you're good, you'll get about half of the words.
Then try the same thing while making associations for each word. The word "dog," for example, can be associated with a picture of a black Labrador or a pet you own. The more associations you make, the more words you'll remember
Using a timer or your watch, write down as many five-letter words as you can in two minutes. Repeat the exercise daily. If you want, practice with six-, seven- or eight-letter words. Your ability to recall all information-not just words-will improve.