Your memory is powered by core brain skills, also known as cognitive skills. But your brain isn’t exactly the Lone Ranger. It can’t function by itself (or even with a single trusted friend named Tonto). Instead, your brain depends on myriad systems in your body (and the health of those systems) in order to do its best work.
To keep your body, your brain (and your memory) riding strong, here are three things you should do (and three things you should avoid):
1. Do treat depression. Everybody feels blue now and then, and these feelings usually mosey on out of our lives by themselves. Ongoing depression, however, is another matter and can lead to numerous health risks and problems. For example, long-term depression elevates levels of cortisol in the brain. This can shrink the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short term memory. One study showed that people who had been depressed–even if it was years ago–had smaller hippocampuses by as much as 15%. Because the hippocampus helps process short term memories, long-term depression can impair the ability to hang onto new information. If you have been depressed or sad for more than six weeks, get help. See a doctor or mental health professional.
2. Do exercise your body. Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. Exercise not only increases blood flow temporarily, it also helps keep your heart and arteries healthy so that even when you’re not exercising, blood flow to the brain stays strong. Even more fascinating, studies show that regular aerobic exercise actually grows new brain cells in the hippocampus (yes, the memory-processing part of your brain that long-term depression can shrink). Extra good news: Exercise is a recognized treatment for depression, too! In one study by the National Academy of Sciences, a three-month program of vigorous aerobic exercise produced a 30 percent increase in hippocampus brain cells!
3. Do keep tabs on your blood pressure. Researchers have documented that people with normal blood pressure–especially as they age–have stronger cognitive skills than counterparts with high blood pressure. High blood pressure has not only been linked to a decrease in memory, it has also been associated with a decrease in other cognitive functions such as concentration and decision-making.
4. Don’t drink too much. Research continues to document the havoc that heavy drinking wreaks on the brain. In one study, heavy users of alcohol experienced over 30% more memory-related problems than non-drinkers, and 25% more memory-related problems than people who said they drank only small amounts.
5. Don’t smoke. The same goes for smoking. Researchers aren’t clear whether smoking-induced high blood pressure is the culprit, or whether the toxic chemicals in cigarettes cause the brain damage. Either way, midlife smokers experience a significantly faster decline in memory skills than non-smokers. And if you haven’t hit mid-life yet, you’re not off the hook, since other studies show cognitive impairment in teen smokers. Finally, research is now linking even second-hand smoke to impaired memory, reduced cognitive skills and even dementia. The bottom line? Avoid smoke, whether from cigarettes dangling from your own mouth or someone else’s.
6. Don’t be a junk food junkie. Finally, for a healthier brain and memory, nix junk food. Oily, sweet foods–staples of a bad diet–can cloud your memory. The Lone Ranger might have given sugar cubes to Silver, but you’re not a horse. For a better memory, stick with healthier fare like carrots.