Good brain health is top-of-mind for many aging adults. Memory loss is affecting more people as the population ages and people live longer. I saw it in my Grandma Lorraine, who spent many years as a nurse and a strong, independent woman who loved to cook. In her later years, she lived in a memory care facility.

More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The World Health Organization expects this number to triple over the next three decades. But today we know there are ways to keep your memory sharp — from brain-boosting foods to exercise and brain games.

What is normal brain aging?

Our brains slow down as a normal part of aging. You might sometimes forget things, like someone’s name or an appointment. But if you notice that your forgetfulness affects daily living, it could be a brain disease called dementia. Dementia affects a person’s memory and judgment. Someone with dementia usually can’t function day-to-day because they have trouble thinking, learning or understanding.

What can I do to keep my mind sharp?

Brain changes occur 10 to 20 years before dementia symptoms appear. So using your brain throughout your life is important to help keep your memory sharp and stay healthy as you age. Adopt these four activities and lifestyle habits to improve memory.

1. Fitness
Studies show that exercise and brain health are related. Active people have a lower risk of memory loss and dementia. That’s because physical activity increases blood flow to the brain. It’s an energy boost for the body and the brain. Exercise also increases nerve proteins that protect brain cells. Regular exercise helps prevent chronic diseases and is an important tool for managing overall health with things like weight, cholesterol and blood pressure.

2. Fun
Brain games that stimulate the mind can cut your risk for developing dementia or memory loss in half. Try puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku, card or board games, or playing an instrument. Or learn something new through faith-based group activities, volunteering or starting a hobby. Learning creates new connections between brain cells. Out with the old, in with the new!

3. Family & Friends
A solid network of social connections is important. We get to have stimulating conversations, share a laugh and enjoy experiences together. Family and friends also help us manage stress and solve problems. They provide support for daily living like eating, sleeping and getting medical care as needed.

4. Food
Feed your body and feed your brain. The best foods for brain health are a variety of nutrition-rich foods.

  • Choose foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna, halibut, avocado, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds.
  • Consume foods high in antioxidants like berries, green tea, curcumin and dark chocolate.
  • Try the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet. These diets have the potential to slow memory loss or reduce the risk for dementia. They emphasize fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, lean meats or poultry, whole grains and healthy fats.
  • It’s better to get your nutrition from food, not vitamins. So far, studies don’t show that taking vitamins for memory can take the place of eating healthy, whole foods.

What are symptoms of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Early onset Alzheimer’s can start between ages 30 to 60. Late onset Alzheimer’s affects people age 60 and older.

The Alzheimer’s Association identified early signs and symptoms of the disease. Some examples are:

  • Asking for the same information over and over
  • Trouble doing everyday things like balancing a checkbook
  • Not understanding how to play a game
  • Confusion about where you are or what day it is
  • Trouble speaking or writing
  • Putting things in a place they would not normally go
  • Avoiding friends or family
  • Mood or personality changes like irritability, depression or anxiety

Working to prevent and treat dementia diseases

If you’re concerned about your memory, speak up. At your Medicare Yearly Wellness Visit, your doctor can perform a “cognitive impairment assessment” to look for signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Or at any time talk to your primary care physician. They can test you or refer you to a specialist like a neurologist who can diagnose and treat these diseases.

It’s also important to be aware that over-the-counter and prescription medicines can have side effects that affect clear thinking, memory or alertness. Check with your doctor. Especially avoid sleep aids and decongestants.

HealthPartners Medicare plan members

You have many great options to see a neurologist who specializes in memory loss.

Approved treatments for Alzheimer’s disease focus on increasing the memory chemicals in the brain. None of these treatments stop or reverse the disease.

Scientists are working hard to develop and test new treatments. HealthPartners researchers are a part of this work. At our Center for Memory & Aging, we’re making treatment discoveries, learning about risk factors and identifying prevention options.