How Seniors Can Boost Memory and Help Ward Off Dementia

Senior Couple Walks in Park


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Senior Couple Walks in Park

Mental Exercises

About 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. over age 65 had dementia, and 22% experienced cognitive impairment, according to a 2022 published study. That staggering statistic means more than 55 million people worldwide experience memory problems and emphasizes the need for maintaining a sharp mind. New research from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston explains why exercise may be one of the most important ways to help stave off memory problems and keep the brain fit. Other moves to consider: Getting a pet, reading fiction, and even getting involved in social media, which may mean, believe it or not, you can TikTok your way to a healthier brain.

Related: 23 Things You Need to Know About Dementia and Alzheimer's

Senior tourist woman walking in nature park
Igor Alecsander/istockphoto

Take a Walk

Increasing the amount of daily activity appears to lower seniors' risk of developing dementia, results of a nine-year JAMA Neurology study show. The survey of nearly 80,000 seniors in the U.K. found that those who took about 9,800 steps a day (preferably at higher intensity) reaped the most benefit — cutting the associated risk of dementia by a whopping 50%, while those who took at least 3,800 steps daily also lowered their risk significantly — by 25%. The findings build on previous research showing that being physically fit was the best way to reduce dementia risk.

Related: The Big Challenges Seniors Face in Everyday Life

Mature man reading a book on the sofa.
Aja Koska/istockphoto

Read a Novel

In the early stages of dementia, many patients stop reading fiction because it’s too difficult to remember what happened from chapter to chapter, says Dr. Richard Restak, neuroscientist and author of "The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind." But it's that kind of mental gymnastics that can help keep your brain healthy. “It’s an exercise in being able to keep track of characters without going backwards from one page to another," he told the Guardian newspaper.

Related: 7 Common Mental Health Issues Among Seniors

Senior woman pouring water in glass by husband

Stop Drinking

Though it's not the most celebratory "activity" on the list, put down that cocktail if you're elderly — Restak says everyone should stop drinking booze entirely by age 70 at the latest. In his book he notes that after 65, you typically have fewer brain neurons, so don't risk them. “Alcohol is a very, very weak neurotoxin — it’s not good for nerve cells.”

Anxiety Relief

Take a Nap

Tired? Take a nap. Sleep aids brain function, and may resolve "brain fog" caused by exhaustion.

An elderly woman with hearing aid

Get Your Hearing and Vision Checked

What does your hearing or vision have to do with your mental clarity? More than you think. “You have to have a certain level of vision to read comfortably, and if that’s missing then you are going to read less," Restak told the Guardian. "As a result of that, you’re going to learn less and be a less interesting person to other people. All of these things really come down to socialization, which is the most important part of keeping away Alzheimer’s and dementia, and keeping your memory.” And if your hearing is poor, you won't be able to keep up with conversations either.

A young teacher teaches a small group of multicultural senior students how to use technologies.

Learn a New Language

Researchers at Penn State discovered that learning a new language changes our brains. It helps form new neural networks, strengthening brain function. "The more you use specific areas of the brain, the more it grows and gets stronger," says Ping Li, a professor of psychology, linguistics, and information sciences and technology. Li likens the development to working out. These anatomical changes provide encouraging news for the elderly and provide hope for more graceful aging.

Focus on Old Woman's Hand Holding a Vintage Black and White Portrait Photograph of a Young Man in a Military Uniform

The Tray Game for Seniors

This is a fun activity for boosting memory and helping to keep the brain sharp. It involves a caregiver or friend's help. Simply have a friend put some random items on a tray. Allow yourself a quick peek at the tray, then cover it up. Try to remember all the items on the tray. If you can't manage a tray, this also works well with a photo on a smartphone or computer. This simple exercise can boost memory and help bolster confidence in someone experiencing memory issues.

Take a Crack At a Puzzle

Take a Crack at a Puzzle

Jigsaw puzzles are another tool for fighting short-term memory loss. Working a puzzle can help develop abilities to reason, analyze, sequence, deduce, and solve problems. "Puzzles encompass hand/eye coordination, dexterity, reasoning, and colors and can keep a person's mind sharp," says Bruce Barnet, a certified caregiver and expert with the Alzheimer's Store. Completing a puzzle can give seniors a sense of accomplishment and control. Puzzles also offer a way for caregivers to communicate and connect to patients.

Get A Roommate

Maintain Connections

Engaging with others is another way to keep mentally sharp and fit. A growing body of evidence suggests that participating in activities that make you think hard and learn new things is good for your brain health. People with such active, engaged lifestyles tend to do better on memory and other cognitive tests than people who are less engaged.

Dolls for Dementia

Dolls for Dementia

Though the use of doll therapy for Alzheimer's patients hasn't been proven to increase memory, it has increased social interaction among patients and caregivers — thereby facilitating recall as it has been proven that social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. One study that involved providing dolls to patients with Alzheimer's seemed to increase the patient's connection to others in their communities. Congregating and bonding over the dolls created more interaction with family members. Ninety-three percent of staff at care facilities said that the dolls "helped with communicating with the residents," according to a 2014 study.

Learn a New Instrument

Learn a New Instrument

Taking up a new instrument is great for improving your memory skills. It's been found to strengthen bonds with other people, increase blood flow to the brain, help the brain recover for stroke patients, reduce stress and depression, and help the elderly multitask. "As people get older, we know their reaction times get slower," says Simon Landry, a researcher in biomedical sciences and audiology at the University of Montreal. "So if we know that playing a musical instrument increases reaction times, then maybe playing an instrument will be helpful for them."

Get a Pet

Get a Pet

Animals can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and have a calming effect. New York-based psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld has witnessed animals' ability to prompt better memory recall in their elderly owners. "I've seen those with memory loss interact with an animal and regain access to memories from long ago," she says. "Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than their physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging."

Teaching his grandson about chess
Jacob Wackerhausen/istockphoto

Play Chess

Staying cognitively active through mentally stimulating activities such as playing games like chess has been linked to keeping the mind sharp. Findings from long-term observational studies — in which researchers observed behavior but did not influence or change it — also suggest that informal cognitively stimulating activities, such as reading or playing games, may lower risk of Alzheimer's-related cognitive impairment and dementia. A study of nearly 2,000 cognitively normal adults 70 and older found that participating in games, crafts, computer use, and social activities for about four years was associated with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.

Engage in Social Media

Engage in Social Media

Engaging in social media can be helpful in boosting memory, says Andy Asher, founder and publisher of Bloomer Boomer, an online publication geared toward seniors. "There are two simple daily lifestyle strategies that work really well to reduce memory loss and help when we start becoming forgetful. Our brain is like a muscle that improves the more we use it," he says. "Keep that muscle toned by finding a detailed activity you like doing every day. Crosswords are popular and in the era of computers, something as simple as engaging on social media is a great way to keep the mind fit."

Kitchen Whiteboard
Kitchen Whiteboard by Rena Tom (CC BY-NC)

Hang a Whiteboard

Asher also likes to keep space tidy because, he says, "It's difficult to misplace things when we keep our living space neat and organized. So to combat forgetfulness that comes with age, I really like hanging a whiteboard in the kitchen to write reminders." This visual variation on a to-do list is a great way to commit items to short-term memory.

Actions Speak Faster Than Words

Actions Speak Faster Than Words

It's been theorized that physical activity helps to increase memory. Indeed, long-term effects of exercise on memory have been shown to be helpful in increasing neural connections. And now it's been found that gesturing can also help with cognitive recall, enhancing learning, and memory. The bottom line, gesticulate while you're talking to help you and others recall what you're saying.