Information overload isn't the only thing that jams memory circuits. "We now have a lot of research showing that lifestyle affects brain function, as well as the risk of developing Alzheimer's," says Elizabeth Edgerly, Ph.D., chief program officer at the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California. Taking control of the following factors could significantly improve your memory.
- Do a health check. Hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, and being overweight are bad for the blood vessels that feed the brain. In a recent study, people who had a procedure that involved widening a major artery in their brain experienced an increase in blood flow that improved memory and thinking. An underactive thyroid gland can also impair memory by producing too little thyroid hormone, which helps regulate brain function. Depression caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals makes it more difficult for nerve cells involved with memory to communicate, says Dr. Gordon. Some gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and antianxiety medications can dim your memory as well, says Edgerly.
- Stave off stress. Anyone who's blanked out during a speech knows that stress can rob your memory banks. Now researchers at Yale Medical School know why: Stress activates an enzyme called protein kinase C, which interferes with the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking. But stress also challenges your ability to form new memories, because your distracted mind has more trouble consolidating new information. One de-stressing strategy: writing in a journal, which tends to be calming and helps you process and remember your experiences.
- Get physical. A study of more than 18,000 women found that those who walked regularly stayed three years younger mentally than nonwalkers. In other research middle-aged adults who did 20 to 30 minutes of daily aerobic activity reduced their risk of Alzheimer's disease by 60%. Tests in animals show that being physical makes nerve cells multiply faster, strengthens their connections, and protects them from damage.
- Stimulate your brain. People who challenge their mind with regular activities like sudoku, crossword puzzles, and word games tend to have better memory retention than those who do less stimulating things like watching TV. A recent review of 22 studies published in Psychological Medicine found that mental activity at all stages of life cuts the risk of dementia nearly in half. The best stimulation, according to a Swedish study, comes from combining a mental challenge with physical activity in a social setting—such as dancing or playing an instrument in a band.