An 81-year-old brain doctor’s 7 ‘hard rules’ for keeping your memory ‘sharp as a whip’

Like any other part of your body, your brain needs daily exercise. Neglecting your brain health can leave you vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

As a neuroscientist, I have been guiding patients with memory problems through brain-enhancing habits and exercises for decades – many of which I also practice.

Here are seven brain rules I follow to keep my memory sharp:

1. Choose fiction when you can.

You can learn a lot from non-fiction works, but they are often organized so that you can skip them based on personal interests and previous familiarity with the subject.

Fiction, on the other hand, requires you to exercise your memory as you go from beginning to end, capturing a variety of details, characters, and plots.

Incidentally, in my years as a neuropsychiatrist, I have noticed that people with early dementia, as one of the first signs of the advancing disease, often stop reading novels.

2. Never leave an art museum without testing your memory.

“Western Motel” by Edward Hopper 1957. Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 50 1/8 in. (77.8 x 128.3 cm). Located at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Visual arts | Getty

My favorite painting to do visualization exercises with is “Western Motel” by Edward Hopper, which depicts a woman sitting in a sunlit motel room.

Start by carefully studying the details until you can see them in your mind’s eye. Then describe the painting while looking away from it.

Illustration: Olivia de Recat for CNBC Make It

Did you put the little clock on the bedside table? The gooseneck lamp? The item of clothing on the chair in the bottom right of the painting? Can you remember the colors and composition of the room?

You can do this with any piece of art to boost your memory.

3. Keep naps under 90 minutes.

Naps of 30 minutes to an hour and a half, between 1pm and 4pm, have been shown to cause information encoded prior to the nap to be recalled later.

Several studies have also shown that naps can compensate for poor sleep. If you suffer from insomnia, an afternoon nap can improve memory performance.

Over the years I taught myself to nap for exactly half an hour. Some people I know have learned to nap for just 15 minutes and then wake up refreshed and refreshed.

4. No party is complete without mind games.

My favorite activity is ’20 questions’, where one person (the questioner) leaves the room and the other players choose a person, place or thing. The questioner can ask up to 20 questions to guess what the group has decided.

Success depends on the questioner’s ability to keep all the answers clearly in mind and mentally eliminate possible choices based on the answers.

Bridge and chess are also great for exercising your memory: to do it right, you need to evaluate previous games, while also thinking about the future consequences of your past and present decisions.

5. Eat brain food.

Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, has a great acronym for BRAIN FOODS:

  • B: Berries and beans
  • R: Rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables
  • A: Antioxidants
  • l: Includes lean protein and plant protein
  • N: Nuts
  • F: High fiber foods and fermented foods
  • O: Oils
  • O: Omega-rich foods
  • D: Dairy
  • S: Spices

And good news for chocoholics (like me): A 2020 study found that cocoa flavonoids, the ingredients in dark chocolate, can improve episodic memory in healthy young adults.

6. Use images for hard to remember things.

My wife’s dog, Leah, is a Schipperke (pronounced “SKIP-er-kee”). It’s a strange name, but I’d have a hard time remembering it. So to finally be able to answer “What breed is that?” at the dog park, I formed the image of a small sailboat (little dog) with a burly skipper holding a huge key.

Get in the habit of turning anything you have a hard time remembering into a wild, bizarre, or otherwise eye-catching image.

7. Don’t sit on the couch all day.

A recent study of 82,872 volunteers found that participants aged 80 or older who were moderately to highly physically active had a lower risk of dementia, compared with inactive adults aged 50 to 69.

Even a shift from sedentary inactivity (sitting for long periods of time, a “never walk when you can drive” attitude to active movement (standing, climbing stairs, walking a mile daily) made a difference.

Housework has also been associated with higher attention and memory scores and better sensory and motor function in older adults.

Dr. Richard Restak, MD, is a neuroscientist and author of 20 books on the human brain, including “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind” and “Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription to Boost Your Brain’s Performance.” He is currently the clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. In 1992 Dr. Restak received the “Decade Of The Brain Award” from the Chicago Neurosurgical Center.

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