While ransacking your purse in search of your cell phone, it dawns on you: You’re talking on it. So you keep chatting away, surely on the verge of a clever remark … but what were you saying again? Hey, we all have a brain lapse now and thenand judging by the Sudoku craze and the boom in video games and gizmos designed to boost our memoriesforgetting is contagious. That’s why we’ve collected age-specific tricks to keep you sharp.
In your 30s
De-stress. Stress is a chronic state for many women in their 30sespecially working mothersand it takes a huge toll. “Stress is toxic to the brain,” says Denise Park, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. The body’s stress response floods the brain with powerful hormones. In the short-term, that helps you focus and cram to meet a deadline, but over time it kills neurons and damages memory centers. When you’re about to boil over, simmer down with progressive muscle relaxation. Tense and release each muscle group, starting with your forehead and working down the body. Get physical too. Exercise burns off stress.
Drink ... a little. Instead of partying hard on weekends, have a drink each night with dinner (even half will do). Scientists think a little alcohol (a beer, mixed drink, or glass of wine all have the same effect), which thins the blood, may help improve blood flow in the brain. Alcohol also increases good cholesterol. The amount is critical, however: Several studies suggest that women who binge-drink have more trouble focusing, remembering, and planning, and people who don’t drink seem to do worse in cognitive tests than glass-a-day types, Harvard University researchers found.
In your 40s
Unplug. When you forget where you’ve parked, it may feel like you’re losing your mind. But it’s more likely that you forgot to use your head. Focus! “The first step to remembering is paying attention in the first place,” says Gary Small, MD, director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Center on Aging and author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young. At work, set aside daily chunks of time to unplug from email, instant messages, and workplace chatter. When parking in a big lot, check and recheck landmarks.
Monitor your mood. You can’t remember or concentrate on anything, and nothing seems new or interesting anymore? A Harvard study showed that women approaching menopause have nearly twice the risk for developing depression, a contributor to memory loss. This can be a vicious cycle: A depressed woman worries that she’s losing her mind, so she gets more depressed and even more forgetful. If you start feeling low most days or aren’t enjoying things you used to, tell your doctor. Talk therapy and antidepressants are proven helpers. And 30 minutes of exercise at least three times a week may fend off the return of depression better than the popular antidepressant Zoloft, according to research from Duke University.
In your 50s
Gossip. When you’re sending the last kid off to college, solving your partner’s newest midlife crisis, and trying to meet your company’s budget deadline, it’s easy to let friendships slide. Don’t! Ten minutes of talking actually boosts memory and thinking speed afterward, according to new research. “It takes a lot of mental workyou’re paying attention, trying to figure out where somebody is coming from, and sometimes biting your tongue,” says study author Oscar Ybarra, PhD, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. This kind of interaction may be as useful as doing crossword puzzles or taking reading-comprehension tests. “Socializing,” Ybarra says, “helps you navigate the real world.”
Master something new. You may think you know it all by now, but it’s important to keep challenging your your brain, says cognitive neuroscientist Denise Park. If you always read romance novels or mysteries, commit to a challenging biography or classic novel. Instead of the same old cruise, plan a European vacation and use maps to navigate new cities. Sudoku? Fine, but play other games as well. Games that become a habit can quickly stop challenging your brain. “It’s just like at the gym,” Park says. “Keep lifting the same amount of weight, and your muscles stop responding. You need to cross-train your brain too.”