DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’m in my mid-60s. As I get older, my biggest fear is becoming forgetful. I’ve heard that keeping your mind active is a good way to stay sharp. Is this true?
A lot of my patients have the same fear you do. In fact, to be honest, I have the same fear. Who doesn’t? And yet we all know that everyone is forgetful sometimes, and that we probably get somewhat more forgetful as we get older.
What you have heard is true: There are things you can do to ward off memory loss. The main thing is to keep yourself mentally challenged and your mind active and engaged.
Here’s what I tell my patients who ask me the question you have. If you are not working, or if your work is “same-old, same-old” and doesn’t present new challenges, try finding new experiences. Get outside your comfort zone. We’re not talking about something like bungee jumping, you understand. Even though I try to take my own advice, I don’t plan to get that far out of my comfort zone.
Instead, I am talking about things that take you out of your daily habits and make you think. Just varying your routine can help keep your mind active and engaged.
The challenges you set for yourself can be pretty simple:
- Try cooking new recipes.
- Figure out new driving routes to your usual destinations.
- Do puzzles and brainteasers. Crossword puzzles, math and word problems are all great.
- Rediscover challenging games you can play alone or with friends. Scrabble, Boggle, and many card and computer games really make you think.
- Get on the Internet, if you aren’t already. You’ll be learning computer skills and gaining access to a wealth of information.
- Join a club to play chess, bridge or poker.
- Find books to read that make you stretch your mind.
The challenges can be more complex:
- Plan a do-it-yourself project such as building a deck or designing a new garden layout.
- Write about your life experiences.
- Take a class in a new or old skill, such as playing a musical instrument or painting.
- Learn a new language.
We have a lot more information on memory loss in our Special Health Report called “Improving Memory: Understanding Age-Related Memory Loss.” You can find out more about it on the Harvard Health Pubilcations website.
I remember the first time I traveled outside the United States. I was 19. In the course of a week I traveled through three countries with different languages, different architecture, different rules (as on public transportation) and very different food. Unlike at home, nothing was “automatic”; I had to figure out how to do so many unfamiliar things. Never for a moment was I bored.
That’s really the test. If you want to protect your mind against memory loss, avoid being bored. Our brains obey the same rules as our muscles: Use it or lose it.