What Really Helps Protect Your Memory?

What Really Helps Protect Your Memory?

Take steps to safeguard your cognitive health.

Photo: Man relaxing with arms crossed behind his head

Keeping your mind sharp takes more than sipping ginkgo tea while playing crossword puzzles, but it couldn’t hurt to make it a habit. Eating patterns, diet, and mental and physical activity levels affect brain function. Taking a closer look at what you don’t do on a daily basis could be telling. “For adults, the brain responds primarily to deficits, not surpluses, in the diet,” says Gary Wenk, PhD, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, and author of Your Brain on Food. Here are three science-backed ways to grease your mental gears.

Eat for your mind. Consuming cacao products, coffee, fruit, foods with melatonin, tea, and foods containing flavonoids may slow cognitive decline associated with normal aging. They protect against cell damage in the brain, Wenk says. But filling up on these foods won’t boost your brain overnight. Sticking to a diet overall rich in nutrients is the key.

“Many authors on this subject naively jump to the conclusion that giving high doses of such nutrients will rapidly improve our mood or thinking. Sadly, this is rarely the case,” he says. Sticking to a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vitamins B, C, and E, is a good model for a mind-healthy eating plan. The absence of these vitamins in the body may have negative affect on brain function. Just don’t rely on supplements, Wenk says, because there's no strong evidence they help. Think: Extra-virgin olive oil, not vitamin E pills.

Pay attention! Focusing on your experiences can help you retain memories of them. One study conducted at museums revealed that people who snapped photos while browsing historic objects remembered less information the next day than those who simply observed those objects. “The results of this study confirmed that paying attention to something helps you remember it,” Wenk says.

Stay mentally active. Keeping your mind moving may counter memory decline. “If you’re someone who is showing signs of dementia or cognitive decline of some kind, then keeping your mind active will probably slow the decline,” Wenk says. As for playing brain games to sharpen the mind, Wenk says he thinks it’s worth a go. “Doing any mental task is probably worthwhile, although no one has identified a single mental task that is most effective.” Test out these memory tricks at any age. Get up and move your body, too. Exercise boosts the flow of blood to your brain.