How to Keep Your Brain Sharp + 7 Basic Brain Exercises

by David Novak

WE’VE ALL FORGOTTEN a name, misplaced keys or couldn’t remember a spouse’s birthday. But because memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process, it’s important to distinguish between normal memory loss and when you should be concerned. The first step to staying mentally sharp as you age is to understand the difference between normal forgetfulness, which may be due to stress, brain atrophy or other factors, and then serious memory problems.


Forgetfulness is a common gripe among older adults. You start to talk about a book you’ve read recently, and then realize you can’t remember the title.  You go into a room of your house, and you wonder what you went there for.  Memory lapses can be frustrating, but most of the time they aren’t cause for concern. Age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia.  Rather, they may be due to poor diet and lack of body and brain exercise, (you know your brain needs exercise, too.)

As we age, we experience physiological changes that can cause hiccups in brain functions we’ve always relied on, and it begins to take longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss, but in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.


For most people, occasional lapses in memory are a normal part of the aging process, not a warning sign of serious mental deterioration or the onset of dementia.  Normal age-related forgetfulness would be very comparable to aging bones and joints, and there are a few signs of this normal condition:

  • Unable to retrieve information, where you have a vague recollection of it, but you can’t communicate it at the moment

  • Not remembering where things are, which you use everyday, like the TV remote, your house keys or your reading glasses

  • Easily distracted and absent-minded

  • Short-term memory loss such as seeing something on TV, reading something or having a conversation with a friend, and then having trouble remembering the details of what you experienced

  • Forgetting scheduled events like appointments, trash day or a lunch with a friend

  • Not remembering peoples’ names, or confusing one name with another

  • Setting foot into a room in the house, and not remembering why you went there in the first place

Age-related memory loss is irritating but not disabling.  If your memory loss affects your ability to function, then the condition is probably more serious than just age-related memory loss.  Simple memory lapses have little impact on your daily routine, performance and ability to do what you want to do independently.

When memory loss becomes so prevalent and common, and so sever that it disrupts things like your relationships, social activities, hobbies or your career, you may be experiencing the warning signs of dementia, another disorder that causes dementia, a condition that mimics dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease.  If this occurs, consult a physician as soon as you experience these signals.

7 Basic Ways to Exercise Your Brain

Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process.  Our brain is able to produce new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an automatic aging consequence. But just as it is with muscle strength, your brain requires exercise and nutrition as well.  The old saying, “use it or lose it”, definitely applies to your brain.  Your diet, exercise regimen, health habits, daily activities and lifestyle have an enormous effect on the health of your brain. Whatever your age, there are many ways you can prevent memory loss, protect your brain and improve your cognitive skills.  These can include:

  1. Eating brain-healthy foods like fish, specifically Omega 3-rich fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and sardines
  2. Challenge yourself mentally on a regular basis with a crossword puzzle, a word game, cards or trivia. You can maintain good intellectual potential as well as reduce the risk for age-related memory loss if you challenge yourself
  3. Stay social with family gatherings, lunch with friends and class reunions.  Maintaining a good social life and having friends you can talk with stimulates the brain
  4. Fitness is great for your brain. Cardiovascular activity pumps more oxygen-rich blood to the brain, which is like giving a car a shot of gasoline. With that blood comes nutrients such as glucose, which fuels every cell in the brain. Daily workouts also have long-term benefits. Cardio exercise strengthens blood vessels and helps prevent illnesses that impair cognitive function
  5. Take naps if you need them. Studies indicate that napping for as little as 6 minutes can improve your memory
  6. Hold on to your happy memories or create new ones. Experts know that positive emotions have a beneficial effect on your ability to process information, and are linked to better brain health over the long term.
  7. Don’t stress about things you’ve forgotten.  While happy memories improve brain function, stress can deplete it.

Many mental abilities are largely unaffected by normal aging, and the things you can always hold onto are your wisdom, your experience, your knowledge, your innate common sense, your reasoning and your ability to do the things you’ve always done and continue to do often.

David NovakDavid Novak is a international syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV around the world. His byline has appeared in GQ, National Geographic, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, USA Today, among others, and he has appeared on The Today Show, the CBS Morning Show and Paul Harvey Radio. David is a specialist at consumer technology, health and fitness, and he also owns a PR firm and a consulting company where he and his staff focus on these industries. He is a regular contributing editor for Healthline.

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