How to Keep Memory Sharp

The same things that keep our bodies healthy keep our brains healthy.
June 25, 2024
min read
Share this GUIDE
Key Points
  • The best data around keeping cognition sharp centers around lowering cardiovascular risk: maintaining an ideal body weight, staying active, treating elevated cholesterol and hypertension, not smoking, and drinking in limited quantities or not at all
  • Socializing, exercising, and getting involved in activities that give your life meaning can be beneficial, especially when done in tandem (like walking with a friend)
  • Untreated hearing and visual impairment can potentially accelerate memory loss and dementia
Table of Contents

Few topics in aging get as much buzz as staying mentally sharp and preventing dementia. While everyone is seeking a magic cure, we’ve made fewer breakthroughs in chronic neurological diseases like dementia than we have in other fields like cardiovascular disease or cancer.

Still, it’s among the most exciting areas of exploration in all of medical science, and there will be plenty of breakthroughs to come. Below, we’ve detailed what we already know can help you stay sharp.

How to Lower Dementia Risk

So far, the best data around keeping cognition sharp and preventing or slowing dementia centers around lowering cardiovascular risk: maintaining an ideal body weight, staying active, treating elevated cholesterol and hypertension, not smoking, and drinking in limited quantities or not at all. If you’re diabetic, maintaining healthy blood sugar also helps. In other words, the things that keep your body healthy also keep your brain healthy.

Why is this? Scientists haven’t pinpointed the exact reason, but one explanation is that things like high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking injure the arteries that carry blood to organs like the heart and kidneys. They also damage arteries that carry blood to the brain, which needs a good blood supply to function properly. While dramatic events like an acute stroke cause immediate damage, there’s evidence that limiting circulation to the brain can cause slow, ongoing damage over time.

The Impact of Alcohol

Studies indicate the impact of alcohol on brain and heart health may follow a U-shaped curve. This means that those who abstain from alcohol completely seem to have a higher risk of cardiovascular death than those who drink 1–2 alcoholic beverages per day. But when the number of drinks consumed exceeds that, rates of death from all causes (like liver disease and injury) rise dramatically.

Studies have shown that high alcohol consumption can damage the brain directly and cause a type of chronic, characteristic dementia.

The Impact of Socializing and Meaningful Activities

Social scientists who study aging have found evidence that socializing — being part of a group or community, seeing family and friends often — helps lower the risk of dementia. Getting out of your comfort zone mentally and physically is a great way to stay mentally fit, and games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, or learning a new language or musical instrument may help. Volunteering and working can also bring new experiences and joy, and are great ways to meet new friends.

Combining exercise and socializing is particularly good for brain health: think taking a walk with friends, playing golf or pickleball together, etc.

Beware of Sensory Impairment

There’s mounting evidence that ignoring hearing and/or visual impairment can potentially accelerate memory loss and may be a risk factor for dementia. If you’re starting to experience any hearing or vision changes, it’s important to take immediate action and get a hearing test and/or vision assessment to address the issue. It will also enhance your ability to communicate meaningfully and socialize.  

Medications and Supplements

While there are a handful of FDA-approved medications for dementia available by prescription, they’re far from a cure-all. Some can help slow decline in patients, but none of these medications actually reverse or restore lost cognition.

As for the bevy of infomercials that hawk over-the-counter “natural” supplements or vitamins to boost or restore memory, the disclaimer at the end usually tells you what you need to know: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and this is not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” So far, none of these have been proven to work, so it’s best not to waste your money.

What To Do Next
The Bottom Line
  • If you’re seeing signs of memory loss in yourself or a loved one, the best step is to schedule an appointment with your physician, who can perform cognitive tests or refer you to someone who can.
  • Don’t waste your time and money on heavily marketed vitamins and supplements that purport to improve memory or reverse dementia; there is no data that these work.
About The Author