Feeling absentminded? Read below for research-based tips on how to keep your brain healthy and active no matter how old you are.

You hit the gym to keep your body fit, toning and stretching your muscles to be strong and flexible. But did you know that your brain needs just as much care to keep it alert and focused?

Aging is a part of life, and an aging body also means an aging brain. As we get older, our ability to think quickly on our feet, form new memories, and keep our attention diminishes. These changes are most noticeably felt after age 60, but research shows that if we act early, we can potentially delay or even prevent them from ever arising.

What happens to our brain as we age?

That telltale decline in mental sharpness we associate with old age is caused by a gradual change in our brain structure. The hippocampus region of our brain, the area that is responsible for learning, emotions, and the formation of new long-term memories, shrinks over time. Also, when we are young, neurons in our brain rapidly create new connections with one another to help us absorb and store new information. In an older person, this rate of neuron-to-neuron connection slows down.

Why sleep is so important for memory

Sleep is not immune to the effects of aging. Both the time spent asleep and the quality of sleep decline as we approach old age. Specifically, we spend less time in the slow wave sleep and REM sleep states. Why does this matter? Both slow wave sleep and REM sleep play important roles in converting our new experiences into long-term memories. When we do not get enough time in these sleep states, we are not able to learn or focus as well and have a harder time making our memories stick.

Keeping fit can keep us sharp

The evidence is clear that our brain can benefit just as much from exercise as our body. When we move, we increase the creation of new blood vessels and neurons in our brain. This enriches and enlarges our hippocampus and allows essential nutrients to better reach other regions of the brain. For this reason, older adults who are fit enjoy better memory, processing speed, and executive functioning abilities.

Can the way we eat affect our memory?

Scientists have long studied cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer disease and recently found a link between these conditions and nutritional deficiencies. Poor eating habits can inhibit brain health in critical ways, by restricting blood flow in the brain due to plaque buildup within artery walls, reducing the ability to process oxygen and convert foods into energy, and increasing inflammation.

Learning can grow the brain

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, composed of billions of cells called neurons that communicate with one another to form networks and share information. These neurons have the critical job of coordinating the proper nervous system functions vital to our daily living. As we embark on new experiences and learn new concepts, the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections between its neurons. In other words, learning can grow our hippocampus.  This phenomenon, called neural plasticity, is important because the brain’s ability to adapt and grow also allows us to stay sharp and keep our memories intact as we age.

What you can do to keep your brain young

It is never too late - or too early - to take care of your brain. Follow these guidelines to keep your mind sharp no matter your age.

Þ   Get the right amount of sleep. The number of hours you sleep is key when it comes to memory; less than five hours and more than nine hours of sleep are both associated with poor mental function. How many hours should you aim for? Getting seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night is the goal.

Þ   Make aerobics and strength training a part of your life. A combination of aerobic activity and strength training is the key when it comes to brain conditioning . This means activities like walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling along with using weights and resistance bands. If you are just starting out, start small: exercise for 10 minutes two or three days a week. Gradually increase your time until you reach a recommended 150 minutes a week.

Þ   Increase your nutritional intake.   An eating approach like the Mediterranean Diet is a proven way to enhance brain health. Rich in fruits, vegetables, unrefined cereals, legumes, fish, and olive oil, it offers plenty of antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, and folate that can improve arterial blood flow. Make a few healthy replacements with your food to start, then add more as you grow more comfortable.

Þ   Try something new every day. Take advantage of your brain’s plasticity by learning a new skill each day: listen to new music, brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, start learning a new language, or learn how to draw. Seeking out different experiences will not only stimulate and sharpen the brain but will enrich creativity as well.