As you age, some slowdown in memory and processing is to be expected. That can mean a forgotten birthday, an accidentally retold story, a temporarily misplaced wallet.
Such run-of-the-mill forgetfulness may increase over the years but is usually not — as you may fear — a sign that you’re on the road to a condition that can seriously impair memory and thinking, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Still, small thinking slip-ups are inconvenient and can sometimes be early warning signs of a more significant problem. So it’s natural to want to take mind- and memory-protective steps.
But which strategies may help us maintain or improve memory or even reduce the risk of dementia down the line? Here, what may help and what’s not supported by the science:
●Rule out other factors. Memory and thinking problems are sometimes related to concerns that your doctor can help you resolve, such as depression, some medications (such as sleeping pills), a vitamin deficiency, excess alcohol consumption, hearing loss and thyroid-, kidney- or liver-related illnesses.
What to do: Talk to your doctor. Sometimes, simply switching prescriptions or treating the underlying problem will normalize your thinking.
●Control your blood pressure. Untreated high blood pressure has repeatedly been linked to cognitive impairment later in life, according to a 2016 report from the American Heart Association. This may be because high blood pressure can, over time, contribute to insufficient blood flow to the brain.
What to do: Avoid smoking, consume alcohol only in moderation and aim for seven to nine hours of sleep at night. And if you have high blood pressure, take your hypertension medications as recommended. A 2016 study published in the Lancet found that older adults with untreated hypertension who followed such lifestyle and medication advice had a lower risk of dementia after six years than those who didn’t take such steps.
●Get regular exercise. People who are mostly sedentary are at a higher risk of cognitive problems as they age. Anything that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain may help reduce that risk.
What to do: Get about 30 minutes of aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk, most days. And because research has been mixed on whether aerobic activity alone is enough, add a few strength-training exercises a couple of times per week. (To get started, see growingstronger.nutrition.tufts.edu .)
Also consider trying tai chi, which involves a series of slow and careful movements. It appears to have some brain-protective effects, according to a 2015 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
●Eat for your heart. Diets that promote heart health may, in turn, help your brain. For example, the well-known Mediterranean diet may help stave off cognitive decline, according to a study of more than 300 older adults published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
What to do: To follow the Mediterranean diet, swap the red meat on your plate for fish (preferably fatty varieties such as salmon and mackerel), and eat leafy greens such as kale and spinach daily. Work small amounts of healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts into your diet and include beans and whole grains such as oatmeal in more of your meals. (The MIND diet has also been linked to a reduced risk of dementia. Get more information on this eating plan at cr.org/brainfood.)
●Challenge your brain. Activities that stimulate the mind might also help preserve it — what scientists call “use it or lose it.” One study from the University of Pittsburgh found that older adults who devoted at least an hour each day to a range of intellectually engaging hobbies — including bridge, board games and musical instruments — were less likely to develop dementia than those who devoted less time to such pursuits.
What to do: Try learning a new language or skill, or sign up for a continuing education course on a subject you’re unfamiliar with.
●Be social. Loneliness and infrequent social contact are both associated with an elevated risk of dementia, a 2015 research summary in Ageing Research Reviews concluded.
What to do: Make time for face-to-face socializing. Strong relationships, party-going and visiting with friends and family have all been linked to a healthier aging brain. In a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, older adults with a busy schedule scored better on tests of memory, reasoning and processing speed.
Supplements. Though a variety of nutrients, including vitamin E, beta carotene, vitamins B6 and B12, folate, vitamin D and fish oil, may play a role in preventing cognitive decline when eaten as part of a balanced diet, the same evidence just isn’t there for supplements of these substances, says Martha Clare Morris, director of nutrition and nutritional epidemiology at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The same caution goes for herbal supplements, such as ginkgo biloba, which is often touted to improve memory and cognition.
Drugs and hormones. A variety of pharmaceutical substances have been studied as possible hedges against cognitive decline or dementia, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen and what are sometimes called smart drugs (such as Ritalin).
Estrogen has also been suggested as a potential brain booster, and trials are underway to test the potential of drugs such as pioglitazone and solanezumab for dementia prevention. But the evidence so far is thin to nonexistent that any can ward off a slipping memory. It’s important to know that some of these experimental approaches may carry harm: Taking estrogen, for example, might actually make cognitive problems worse.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.