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Your Brain in Your 50s

Brain health is important to monitor as we age


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This is the age when we start asking that well-known question, “Where did I put my keys?” In terms of memory, the areas that decline most include episodic memories (remembering what you ate for lunch) and source memories (remembering where you read about something), according to the American Psychological Association. But what you consider memory problems may be due to reduced attention and processing speed.

“We have more trouble sustaining attention for important information and holding it for longer,” explains clinical psychologist Cynthia Green, president of Total Brain Health in Montclair, New Jersey. It’s harder to filter out irrelevant information — that’s why older people often complain about noise in a restaurant — which is why older adults are more easily distracted, a study from the University of Cambridge found. And that makes it harder for them to encode and retrieve information.

To solve the problem, focus more on focusing. “If you're learning my name, you need to focus on it before you move on to something else in the conversation,” Green says. “If you don't, you won't acquire the information. It's not that you forgot it. You never got it to begin with.”

Changing your habits can pay mental dividends. About one-third of the risk factors for dementia are potentially modifiable through lifestyle changes, a a July 2017 Lancet report shows. These include exercising, quitting smoking and treating depression. Preventing or minimizing heart disease is also important. High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity can affect blood vessels and neural connections throughout the brain, explains Jennifer Rose Molano, M.D., of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

Consider incorporating the following habits into your daily life.

  • Use memory tricks. “To remember something, you have to pay attention to it,” Molano says. “And if you aren’t paying attention to it, it’s hard to store it in your memory.” To improve your storage capabilities, repeat information when you hear it. When you meet someone named Mary, say, “Hi, Mary. Nice to meet you.” Or connect new information with something you already know. So if you meet someone named Ken, you might think, Ken, like Ken and Barbie. Or Ken Burns. Or your cousin Ken. A more complex approach is a visual strategy called moviemaking. Green uses herself as an example, explaining that if you were introduced to her, you could visualize her turning green with envy. “It's an effective technique,” she says. “It gets your attention, it has motion, it’s unusual, and you’re likely to remember that.”

  • Challenge yourself. Mentally stimulating activities can help you maintain your memory, thinking, attention and reasoning skills as you age and may even reduce your risk of dementia, according to a 2017 report from the Global Council on Brain Health. The report recommends activities such as taking up a hobby, learning a language and enrolling in a class. “Go for a walk with friends and talk about a book,” Green suggests. An AARP survey found that those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities reported not only strong memory and thinking skills but also good health and well-being.

  • Play games with a timer. When you race against a clock, you use the intellectual skills most challenged by aging, including sustained attention, processing speed and reasoning, Green says. So play games with a timer, such as Boggle, Scattergories or Word Streak With Friends (an app-based game). One of Green’s favorites is the classic handheld game Simon, in which you recall which buttons light up and beep, with the sequences becoming harder and quicker as you improve.

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. In an AARP survey, 43 percent of respondents age 50-plus said they don’t get enough z’s. That’s a problem, research shows. Adults who slept less than seven to 9 hours a night experienced a larger decline in brain volume over three to five years than those who slept solidly, researchers at the University of Oxford discovered. Sleep fragmentation — waking up frequently during the night — can harden arteries in the brain and increase your risk of stroke, according to a study from the University of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. To get more shut-eye, try these good-sleep tips from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health: Get up at the same time every morning, avoid long naps (which can disrupt nighttime sleep), and don’t eat or drink three hours before bedtime.

  • Work up a sweat. In a University of Texas at Dallas study, sedentary adults ages 56 to 75 rode a stationary bike or walked on a treadmill for an hour three times a week. After six weeks, blood flow to the hippocampus and anterior cingulate (an area linked to memory and attention) had improved, and within 12 weeks, the subjects’ memory had improved. Need more evidence? Resistance training led to improvements in executive function and memory in people 50 and over, a study in the BMJ (formerly called the British Medical Journal) revealed. Don’t like gyms? Burning calories through activities such as gardening and walking can increase the gray matter in your brain, which is linked to reduced risk of dementia, according to researchers at UCLA Health and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

  • Meditate for 25 minutes. Meditation isn’t easy, which deters some people. Yet this practice challenges the brain, giving it a lift. In a study from the University of Waterloo, participants who meditated or practiced yoga for 25 minutes a day improved their executive function. What’s more, a UCLA study found that older adults who meditated for around 20 years had bigger brains and more gray matter, and their brains appeared 7.5 years younger than those of people who didn’t meditate. Another good option is tai chi. Older Chinese adults who did tai chi three times a week for 40 weeks increased their brain size and improved their performance on memory tests, researchers at the University of South Florida and Fudan University in Shanghai found.

Read more articles about how your brain changes through the decades.

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