Muscle Your Memory: 12 Tips to Stay Mentally Sharp

man looking at laptop computer

Your brain is a remarkable thinking and memory machine. As the writer Bill Bryson noted in his bestselling book, The Body, “Just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the Hubble Space Telescope has processed in thirty years.” (49) No wonder that over the years it can gradually become harder to remember things or think as sharply as you once did.

However, for patients with cognitive impairment, such as that caused by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, the decline is much more pronounced. Patients with dementia experience struggles with memory loss, communication, feelings of isolation, or lack of interest in activities they once loved. But here’s the good news: We humans are resilient, and throughout every stage of dementia, people with dementia hold onto their innate drive to be successful.

With this in mind, here are a dozen tried-and-true brain-sharpening strategies to fuel that drive, handpicked by the dementia experts at Ageility. Try them yourself or with someone you love.

12 tips for staying mentally sharp

  1. Sing a song. Learn new songs and challenge yourself with old favorites that you haven’t heard in years. After singing or humming to yourself, look up the lyrics online to see how many words you remembered.
  2. Write it down. Birthdays, medical appointments, passwords … writing things down, either on paper or using a digital app, helps to remember them when you don’t have your notes in front of you.
  3. Play The Categories Game. Choose a category—such as fruits, birds or cars—and see how many you can name in 2 minutes. Pick a new category each day. Don’t keep the fun to yourself—challenge a friend or loved one to a duel!
  4. Name that … name. When greeting someone new, try not to let your mind wander. Hint: Using their name a few times during your first greeting helps. Note an interesting feature that person has, such as thick, curly hair and think, “Jane has thick, curly hair.” Later, see if you can recall the name along with something interesting you learned about the person.
  5. Nail down numbers. Build up your ability to memorize a progressive series of numbers or items. For phone numbers, for instance, memorize four, then seven, then all ten digits.
  6. “File under ….” To remember lists, try categorizing items. For example, list household tasks under “Bills,” “Cleaning” and “Maintenance.” Or visually map items—memorize a grocery list by aisle location, for instance. Test yourself: Only pull out your written grocery list to double check before checkout.
  7. Keep learning. Learning never stops! Explore new areas of interest, such as history, art (museums are great for this) or biography. Visit the library—find a new book on a subject you’ve always wanted to dig into. Keep a “new learning bucket list” of topics and tackle them one at a time.
  8. Team up with your body. Pair a physical challenge with a mental challenge. For instance, can you stand on one leg for 15 seconds? Now do that while saying the alphabet backwards. Advantage: Physical activity pumps oxygen to your brain.
  9. Practice eye-hand coordination. Play catch, bounce a ball (try juggling for a special challenge!), or enlist a friend to play Frisbee, bocce ball, corn hole, ping pong or pickleball. All get your eyes and hands working together.
  10. Stop and smell the roses. Let nature stimulate your brain by taking a walk and enjoying new scenery. Mind all of your senses and note things you haven’t focused on before, such as bird calls, cloud shapes, the smell of wildflowers or the feel of a gentle breeze.
  11. Pick a new passion. Learn a new talent or take up a new hobby, such as a musical instrument, foreign language, knitting, origami, or a new cooking technique or cuisine. Check out classes online or books and DVD courses from your local library.
  12. Practice problem solving. Many people love puzzles and there’s something for every age, even grandkids. Good choices: jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, chess, checkers, Yahtzee and card games. Have a non-puzzle problem to solve? Brainstorm solutions with a friend—write them down and compare lists. Did they have some you didn’t consider?

Bonus tip: Get 40 winks—at least. Last but arguably the most important tip to staying sharp is to get restful sleep. How well you sleep affects your thinking the following day, including problem solving, judgment and response times. Continued lack of sleep is linked to chronic diseases and dementias. On the plus side, sleep helps your brain learn and reenergize.

Are you or someone you love struggling with memory, and interested to learn how our therapists and trainers can help? Contact Ageility at [email protected] to learn about our memory programs.

Reinventing Rehab and Fitness for Older Adults

Older adults want to stay strong and active, but they don’t want one-size-fits-all solutions. Subscribe to our blog to receive tips and stories on rehab and fitness approaches designed specifically for older adults.