Fun Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp as You Grow Older
Aging is inevitable. As my husband says, it sure beats the alternative. But a gradual decline in our health and faculties as we age is not entirely ‘inevitable’. We can do something about it, in fact we can do a lot about it.
Exercise and aging
As we age we need to keep moving. It is well known that putting regular exercise and good sleep into our daily routine goes a long way to keeping us young. Strength, agility and mobility are all improved by even a small dose of exercise, especially aerobic (1). Being fit also helps prevent and recover from non communicable diseases, and being physically inactive is the highest modifiable risk factor for a wide variety of chronic diseases (2). And don’t forget its been proven that physical exercise also directly helps your memory (6).
So a little regular exercise is a must. Just don’t tell my husband, who is of the firm belief that running is only for those being chased. Although to be fair he will walk (under duress).
Eating and aging
And as we age what we eat continues to matter. A lot. Research has repeatedly confirmed that eating more plants leads to increased health and a longer lifespan. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds should be at the front, centre and end of the menu.(3) And highly processed foods are robbed of most nutrition and have unhealthy additives, so less processed and more whole is the secret sauce.
Mental health and aging
Our mental health often takes a hit as we age. Over 20% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental or neurological disorder. The older we are, the more susceptible we are to dementia and depression (4). But there’s plenty of simple areas that can help here. Eating well and getting regular exercise does a lot to support mental health, as does new learning, socialisation, play, mindfulness and getting some sun on your face. And its not all bad – studies show that older people have experience which gives a ‘wiser’, more measured understanding and perspective.
What about our memory? Does that inevitably fade, with recall becoming less sharp and new information harder to learn?
Memory decline with age is common. This occurs in declarative memory, which is learned facts and information, as well as our working memory, which is the ability to hold a piece of information in mind. It is true that our brain changes with age and its volume drops. This especially effects the hippocampus, an area deeply involved in learning and memory. But neuroscientists are learning our brains remain relatively “neuroplastic” even as we age – we continue to be able to reroute neural connections and can still adapt and learn (5). So we can improve our memory at any age.
Why Memory Matters
First things first, why should you care about your memory and try to improve it? Because memory is the superhero of the mind. Memory informs our thoughts and words, guards all of our experience and understanding and allows us to continue lifelong learning and growth. Without memory, life would be like reading a book and forgetting the plot every few pages. So lets get cracking on building the strongest memory we can : )
Memory Training: A Workout for Your Brain
Memory training is analogous to a fitness regimen for your brain. It encompasses exercises and techniques that enhance memory retention and recall. However, the benefits extend far beyond mere memory improvement; they encompass broader cognitive health and emotional well-being. It’s a win-win-win.
Let’s explore some potent memory training techniques I use with memory coaching students.
The Memory Palace
Visualize a familiar place, such as your home. In your mind walk a pathway through your home while placing objects along the way – these images represent what you need to remember. This mental map works brilliantly, as long as you really visualise the image of object you are using and know your pathway well. Create imaginative movement or a story for each image to really cement it in your memory. Then you can simply take a walk in your mind though your palace and the items will spring to mind – viola!
Memory palaces are the core of many memory techniques, and well worth getting familiar with. The power of our spatial and visual recall is astonishing and this technique directly taps into that strength.
Learn more and try a shopping list example in my detailed Memory Palace blog here.
Training program for beginners:
- 3 times a week write down a list of 15 to 20 words and use this technique to remember them in order. Can you re use a palace? Read this blog.
- Start with lists of easy to visualise items, such as your shopping list.
- Once you are able to remember the entire list move to more complex words, like ‘cuddle’ or ‘stormy’. Its all the same technique, just more imagination is needed to create the image.
- As you get better increase the length of the lists.
- Test your recall in front of friends – it adds weight to the practice, and can be seriously impressive!
Names and Faces
Names have forever been hard to remember. I used to be atrocious at recalling them, and shied away from using new names at social events as a result. Once I learnt this technique, I’ve become quite the social butterfly, much to the chagrin of my name-challenged Hubbie : )
There are a few steps:
1. When you meet a new person, first pause and listen for their name when they tell you, while concentrating on it. Doing this is surprisingly hard.
2. Convert that name into an image and really visualise it. Whatever makes a connection to you. Bella would be a bell (of course), and James may be a train made of Jam, and so on. It needs to match the name somehow, anyway that makes a connection to you.
If you already know someone with that name it is even easier. Say Harry reminds you of a friend, who has a beard. You could use Harry’s beard as the image.
3. Find a feature on their face or head that is distinctive to you – the thing about them you first notice. Maybe they have big ears or beautiful full lips.
4. Then imagine your name image stuck on or coming out of that face feature! So a Jam train might be choo-chooing into the tunnel of their ear, or a bell is attached to their lip and tingles daintily when they speak. The more silly it is the more memorable it will be.
Then the next time you see them, simply look for their stand-out feature and your name image will likely pop into your mind. (Or come chuffing out of their ear puffing out clouds of jam.)
You can find more detail and examples in my names and faces blog here.
Training program for beginners:
- Every day remember the names of 2 new people, for instance someone you see on the news or in the paper.
- You don’t need to know their real name to practice – when you see a new face you can invent a name for them and practice this technique to pin that name to that face.
- Once you have practiced and can do this fairly quickly, step up the number of faces you label each day.
- Find a list of names, for instance on the internet or social media, and try to think of a memorable image that represents each name. This is great preparation for when you meet someone carrying that name.
Learn a new thing
Try to learn a new thing each week. Anything new presents a mental challenge and a learning opportunity. This can be a simple task – it doesn’t need to be attending college.
- Take a different path on your regular walk or travels
- Go to a different shopping centre
- Read a book or article of a type you wouldn’t normally
- Try to brush your teeth with the wrong hand!
- Challenge yourself to learn a new word in a different language every day.
Use memory techniques to help you do this. Create an image (or combined images) that sounds like the word, and combine that with the meaning of the word. Eg Libro is Spanish for book, so you might see a pair of Levi jeans saying ‘Bro, check out this book’ while offering you… a book.
- Learn a new game and teach it to someone and play it. Eg a new card game. Teaching is one of the strongest paths to learning, and play is important 😊
Empower others with your newfound memory mastery. Teach your friends and family the memory techniques you’ve acquired, enabling them to join your memory training journey.
As we get older there is plenty we can do to strengthen our memory and mental health. It can be a lot of fun, and who doesn’t appreciate a challenge? Even my husband agrees.
(1) Bai, X. et al. (2022). Aerobic exercise combination intervention to improve physical performance among the elderly: A systematic review, Frontiers in physiology, 12. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2021.798068/full
(2) Warburton, D.E.R., Nicol, C.W. and Bredin, S.S.D. (2006). Health Benefits of Physical activity: the Evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, [online] 174(6), pp.801–809. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.051351
(3) Forbes Health. (2023). These Foods Can Help You Live Longer, But Americans Aren’t Eating Enough. Here’s How To Easily Increase Your Intake, According To Experts. [online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/health/body/plant-based-diet-longevity
(4) World Health Organization (2017). Mental health of older adults. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-of-older-adults
(5) Wnuk, A. (2019). How the brain changes with age. [online] Brainfacts.org.
Available at: https://www.brainfacts.org/thinking-sensing-and-behaving/aging/2019/how-the-brain-changes-with-age-083019
(6) Fairbank, R. (2022). New Study Strengthens the Link Between Exercise and Memory. The New York Times. [online] 7 Oct 2022. Available at: