If you want to stay mentally sharp as you grow older – and who of us doesn’t? – it would be tough to find any better source of advice than Richard Restak. Dr. Restak, age 81, is a neuroscientist and author of 20 books on the human brain. Currently, he is Clinical Professor of Neurology at George Washington Hospital University. In other words, he knows whereof he speaks!
Thanks to those credentials, Dr. Restak’s recent article on the CNBC website is worth our attention. In the article, he shares what he calls his seven “hard rules” for keeping your memory sharp as we age. But this isn’t the usual laundry list of helpful tips about sudoku and crossword puzzles. This article contains a few surprises that we intend to take to heart – or a better term might be, “keep in mind.”
Neglect Your Brain and You’ll Pay a High Price
Writing in CNBC, Dr. Restak begins, “Like any other part of your body, your brain needs daily exercise. Neglecting your brain health can make you vulnerable to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. As a neuroscientist, I’ve spent decades guiding patients with memory problems through brain-enhancing habits and exercises — many of which I practice, too.”
The following are Dr. Restak’s “seven hard rules” he follows to keep his brain and memory “sharp as a whip at 81 years old.” That’s a goal worth aspiring to!
Rule #1: Choose to Read Fiction Over Non-Fiction
This one surprised us a bit. While there’s nothing wrong with reading non-fiction—after all, one can learn a lot from books on history, science, and the like – Dr. Restak suggests that non-fiction books are organized in ways that “allow you to skip around based on personal interests and previous familiarity with the subject.” He claims they don’t work the mind like fiction does.
Instead, he suggests reading fiction as much as you can. “Fiction, on the other hand, requires you to exercise your memory, as you proceed from beginning to end and retain a variety of details, characters and plots,” he writes. “I’ve noticed over my years as a neuropsychiatrist that people with early dementia, as one of the first signs of the encroaching illness, often stop reading novels.” Time to dust off those John Grisham books.
Rule #2: Never Leave an Art Museum Without Testing Your Memory
Sure, there are plenty of ways to test your memory. But Dr. Restak likes to use art. In the original CNBC article, he includes a picture of a famous piece of artwork, the Edward Hopper painting “Western Motel” as an example, but he notes that this can – and should – be done with any piece of art. It’s a fun habit to develop, and a helpful one.
“Start by intently studying the details until you can see them in your mind’s eye. Then describe the painting while looking away from it,” he writes. “Did you include the tiny clock on the bedside table? The gooseneck lamp? The piece of clothing on the chair at the lower right of the painting? Can you recall the colors and the composition of the room?”
By practicing in this way, you can play memory games with yourself and boost your attention in the process
Rule #3: Keep Naps Under 90 Minutes
Are naps good for you? Dr. Restak says yes…with a cautious awareness of just how long you’re resting. There’s a risk of too much of a good thing.
He writes, “Naps lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, between 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., have been shown to increase later recall for information encoded prior to the nap. Several studies have also found that naps can compensate for poor sleep at night. If you struggle with insomnia, a mid-afternoon nap can boost memory performance.”
As for the good doctor himself, he has trained himself to nap for exactly half an hour, but he knows others who nap for a mere 15 minutes, and that’s enough for them to wake up refreshed.
Rule #4: Every Party Should Include Brain Games
Good brain health can be a group activity, and a gathering of friends is a fun place to experiment.
“My favorite activity is ‘20 Questions,’ where one person (the questioner) leaves the room and the remaining players select a person, place or thing. The questioner can ask up to 20 questions to guess what the group decided,” Dr. Restak writes. “Success depends on the questioner’s ability to keep clearly in mind all of the answers and mentally eliminating possible choices on the basis of the answers.”
He also suggests bridge and chess as good memory games that can be played with more than one participant. He likes these, because “in order to do well, you have to evaluate previous games, while also considering the future consequences of your decisions in the past and present.” Again, it’s a way to keep the brain nimble and engaged.
Rule #5: For a Healthier Brain, Eat Brain Foods
Dr. Restak references the work of nutritional psychiatrist Dr. Uma Naidoo of Harvard, who provides the following acronym for BRAIN FOODS:
- B: Berries and beans
- R: Rainbow colors of fruits and vegetables
- A: Antioxidants
- I: Include lean proteins and plant-based proteins
- N: Nuts
- F: Fiber-rich foods and fermented foods
- O: Oils
- O: Omega-rich foods
- D: Dairy
- S: Spices
“And good news for chocoholics (like me),” Dr. Restak writes. “A 2020 study found that cocoa flavonoids, the ingredients in dark chocolate, can enhance episodic memory in healthy young adults.” Another vote for the occasional dark chocolate indulgence.
Rule #6: For Hard-to-Remember Things, Use Mental Images
Creating mental pictures can really aid in remembering tough ideas or concepts.
As an example, Dr. Restak explains, “My wife’s dog, Leah, is a Schipperke (pronounced ‘SKIP-er-kee’). It is a distinctive name, but I’d have the hardest time remembering it. So to finally be able to answer ‘What kind of breed is that?’ at the dog park, I formed the image of a small sailboat (small dog) with a burly skipper holding a huge key.”
He adds, “Get in the habit of converting anything which you find hard to remember into a wild, bizarre or otherwise attention-grabbing image.”
Rule #7: Don’t Sit Around on the Couch All Day!
Regular readers of the blog know how much we encourage regular exercise, and Dr. Restak agrees. His advice, and ours, is to get moving!
“ One recent study of 82,872 volunteers found that participants 80 years or older who engaged in moderate to high level of physical activity were at lower risk for dementia, compared with inactive adults aged 50 to 69 years,” he writes. “Even just a shift from sedentary non-activity (prolonged sitting, a ‘never walk when you can drive’ attitude), to active movement (standing, climbing stairs, walking a mile daily) made a difference.”
He also encourages everyone to do their chores: “Housework has also been linked to higher attention and memory scores and better sensory and motor function in older adults,” he writes.
So, with a little of the good doctor’s advice, we can keep our brains more nimble. We’re planning to put some of these tips into practice!
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(originally reported at www.cnbc.com)