You walk with purpose from the kitchen to the living room—but once you get there, you can’t remember why you needed to go there in the first place. Sound familiar? You’re not the only one who feels a little all-over-the-place sometimes. In fact, according to a 2018 CDC report, one in nine Americans over the age of 45 deal with memory issues.
Instances of mild forgetfulness (such as missing a monthly payment here and there or difficulty coming up with the right word from time to time) can be a normal part of getting older, says the National Institute on Aging—but they don’t necessarily have to be.
“Let’s face it—a life without memories is not much of a life,” says Michael Greger, M.D., founding member and Fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and author of the How Not to Diet Cookbook. “Eating and living healthier can help eliminate some of the worst risk factors for the most serious brain diseases.”
And even if you’re nowhere near retiring, signing up for AARP, or even wanting to think about your later years, know this: It’s never too early to start setting yourself up for healthy cognitive function in the decades to come. In fact, Greger says that starting now—however old you are—is key.
A few simple lifestyle changes go a long way in keeping your brain sharp for the long run. Here are six tactics to try now.
1. Snack On Berries
Back in 2010, research first found a link between blueberries and memory improvements in older adults showing early signs of cognitive deterioration, Greger says. Then, two years later, Harvard University researchers quantified these findings using data from the original Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which tracked the diets and health of 16,000 women starting in 1980. According to Greger, the researchers discovered that women who consumed at least one serving of blueberries and two servings of strawberries per week had slower rates of cognitive decline compared with those who didn’t eat berries. In fact, they averaged up to two and a half more years of cognitive health.
“These results suggest that making one simple and delicious dietary tweak—eating a handful of berries each day—may slow your brain’s aging by more than two years,” Greger says.
2. Get Moving
When in doubt, sweat it out. In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Neurology, researchers divided participants with mild cognitive impairment into two groups. One group did some type of aerobic exercise for 45 to 60 minutes four times a week for six months. The other group, meanwhile, did stretching exercises on that same schedule. Before and after the six months, the researchers conducted memory tests and performed MRI scans on participants.
The results: “Researchers found that cognitive function in the stretching group continued to decline, but the exercising group didn’t only not get worse, they got better!” says Greger. The scans revealed a reversal of age-related shrinkage in the memory centers of the exercisers’ brains. “Aerobic exercise helps improve cerebral blood flow, improves memory performance, and helps maintain the size of your brain,” Greger concludes. Big stuff.
3. Drink OJ
If you thought juice was officially “out,” don’t write it off just yet. “Some people might be surprised at this benefit, but drinking 100-percent orange juice can help your body get the flavonoid hesperidin, which may benefit brain health by lowering inflammation and helping to maintain blood flow to the inner parts of your brain,” says dietitian Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Plant-Based Eats in Connecticut.
Yes, it’s legit: According to research published in the European Journal of Nutrition, hesperidin-enriched orange juice may have the ability to lower blood and pulse pressure in adults with early hypertension. Since a 2020 study published by the American Heart Association concluded that high blood pressure can actually speed up memory loss (as well as other cognitive declines) among middle-aged and older adults, this holds water for people concerned with brain health.
While hesperidin-enriched OJ might not be available in supermarkets, you can still reap the benefits from the 100-percent product on the shelves, Gorin says.
4. Make Sangria Or Red Wine Your Go-To’s
Go ahead, order a pitcher of red for the table. “If you drink alcohol, sangria may be the best bet for your brain since regular consumption of red wine has been linked to improved cognitive function,” says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N. C.D.N., a plant-forward culinary nutritionist and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook.
Gorin agrees, pointing to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in which researchers performed a battery of cognitive tests on more than 2,000 volunteers between the ages of 70 and 74. The results: The highest test scores were among adults who consumed flavonoid-rich foods, including wine, chocolate, and tea. In fact, the researchers identified that wine had the most profound effect. “Yes, I’m telling you to indulge in the occasional glass of wine!” Gorin says.
Of course, the whole “everything in moderation” thing certainly applies here. While it’s an ongoing topic of debate, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to one drink a day for women and two a day for men. (Five ounces of wine is considered one drink.) That said, the American Academy of Neurology does not recommend non-drinkers taking up wine tasting as a hobby simply to obtain this possible benefit.
5. Bring On The Tomatoes
Whether it’s pizza, classic spaghetti, or your favorite baked pasta dish, you can enjoy classic Italian foods knowing they actually offer major perks for your noggin.
“Pizza sauce offers brain-boosting benefits since tomatoes—especially cooked tomatoes—are a rich source of the carotenoid lycopene, which is associated with maintaining cognitive function and may play a protective role against dementia,” explains Newgent. Case in point: A review published in the Journal of Nutritional Science on four studies that examined a possible link between lycopene and cognition reported a “significant positive relationship” between the two. (FYI: If you’re not a fan of tomatoes, you can take lycopene in supplement form.)
Also worth noting: “When cooked tomatoes are paired with fat, such as the olive oil traditionally used in pizza-making, your body absorbs even more of the beneficial lycopene,” states Newgent. Pass the EVOO, please!
6. Go Mediterranean
As a general rule, filling your plate with plants is a good move for your brain. “Whole plant foods contain thousands of compounds with antioxidant properties, some of which can traverse the blood-brain barrier and may provide neuroprotective effects by defending against free radicals,” states Greger. Basically, he says, these compounds help keep your brain from “rusting.”
If you’re not sure where to begin with incorporating more plants, consider the tried-and-true Mediterranean eating pattern.
“The Mediterranean diet—which is higher in vegetables, beans, fruits, and nuts, and lower in meats and dairy products—has been associated with slower cognitive decline and lower risk of Alzheimer’s,” Greger says. In fact, the May 2021 issue of the journal Neurology includes a study through which German researchers discovered that some of the staples in the Mediterranean plan (such as fish, vegetables, and olive oil) may help protect the brain from protein deposits and brain atrophy that can trigger memory loss.
Need a little inspiration? Here’s exactly what to eat in a day on the Mediterranean diet to keep your brain sharp.