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6 ways to improve memory loss in your 30s for future purposes

Getting older is finally getting something of a rebrand: 40 is the new 20, and 60 is the new 40; it’s cool to be authentic on social media and share unfiltered, no-makeup pictures of your face. And yet, none of that changes the fact that it’s unnerving to notice yourself aging in an internal way—like when you catch little lapses in your memory as early as your 30s.

Those minor brain farts aren’t always just random flukes. “We used to think the brain started changing in ways that affected memory when people were fairly old,” Charan Ranganath, PhD, professor at the Center for Neuroscience in the department of psychology at the University of California Davis and author of Why We Remember, tells SELF. “But now we know that those changes actually start around the 30s.”

That doesn’t mean you’re doomed to get progressively more forgetful, though. It’s possible to improve your brain’s grip on memory over time with certain lifestyle habits—many of which you may already be doing to benefit other aspects of your health. After all, your brain is a body part, Dr. Ranganath says, “so the kinds of things that are good for your body are ultimately good for your brain too.”

Below, experts break down the everyday behaviors that can improve your memory long-term, why they work, and how to make them a functional part of your routine.

First, it’s important to have some background on why your memory starts to go in your 30s.

It sounds wild, but your brain naturally begins to shrink in your 30s (after hitting peak functioning around age 25). Specifically, research has pinpointed declines in the frontal lobe, which includes your prefrontal cortex, or the area that handles executive functions. Dr. Ranganath describes it as the part of your brain that coordinates all its other sections toward a common goal, like an executive at a company. “As the prefrontal cortex gets a bit slower to respond with age, it doesn’t have as much leadership, so to speak, and things can run off course,” he explains, “which is why we find ourselves losing our train of thought, getting distracted more easily, or having trouble remembering things.”

All of this is captured by a dip in “fluid intelligence,” which reflects how quickly you can take in information and act on it, Antonio Puente, PhD, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and chief psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, tells SELF. It declines steadily with age (starting as early as your 20s), he says, so in your 30s you might feel a little more scatterbrained or inattentive when you’re handling a few things at once.

And that’s before you add in all the everyday life reasons that can cause you to, say, blank on someone’s name. You may be a first-time parent, climbing the ladder at work, or just dealing with the stress and fatigue of hardcore adulting (or all of the above!). “People in their 30s have a lot of demands on them,” Dr. Ranganath says, “and they’ve probably got all sorts of devices (like a tablet, laptop, and maybe multiple phones) they’re managing that are also taxing their frontal lobe function even more.” Translation: Being pulled in a million directions—whether digitally, IRL, or both—will make it tougher for your brain to recall that one thing you didn’t write on your to-do list or even why you walked into a certain room.

So what kind of habits should you start in your 30s to protect your memory for the long haul?

1. Make a routine out of getting enough sleep

Burning the midnight oil doesn’t just leave you feeling fuzzy as hell the next day. Regularly missing the sleep your body needs—around seven hours every night—can really screw with your memory over time for a couple reasons: You’re reducing your brain’s capacity to clear away the waste it naturally accumulates during the day (which has been linked to a higher risk of developing dementia) and, more imminently, cutting down the time you’re spending in REM sleep, when the brain commits the skills you’ve learned to long-term memory. In fact, REM is often the stage that’s affected most when you start losing sleep, Dr. Puente says.

The most reliable way to ensure your body gets the seven-ish hours of shuteye it needs, including the memory-boosting benefits of the REM stage, is to stay consistent with your sleep schedule, Dr. Puente says.

Going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time each day (you can vary it by about 45 minutes on weekends, but ideally no more than that) helps program your circadian rhythm (a.k.a. internal clock) so you feel tired at night and alert in the morning. That system can go haywire when you shift your bedtime or wake-up time more than an hour in either direction, Dr. Puente says, making it harder to get the rest you need. (If you’re having trouble maintaining a regular sleep schedule, it might be time to overhaul your presleep habits.)

2. Get your heart pumping at least a few times a week

There’s a veritable mountain of research connecting exercise with healthy brain function. It’s been shown to reduce your risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia and boost how well healthy adults perform on cognitive tests. But one of the most compelling pieces of evidence for memory, in particular, is a study that found aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus (a key part of your brain involved in memory and learning) by up to 2%, staving off a meaningful chunk of the shrinkage that happens with age.

So aiming for the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise a week (at minimum) will be as much a workout for your brain as it is for your heart. Ideally, you should spread out the movement throughout the week, on at least three to five days, and work out “to the point where your pulse is elevated and you’re breathing hard enough that you can’t carry on a conversation,” R. Scott Turner, MD, PhD, director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University department of neurology, tells SELF.

Exactly what heart-pumping exercise you choose is up to you. “I recommend doing the one that you will continue to do for a long time because you enjoy doing it,” Dr. Turner says. (Might we suggest this zero-jumping cardio routine or quick bodyweight workout?)

3. Find an exercise buddy

Pair your movement with some mingling, Dr. Ranganath recommends. It’s well-documented that having a bustling social life in your 50s and 60s can slash your risk of developing dementia, likely because you’re encouraging your brain to keep doing things that actively tap key language and memory functions, like carrying on a conversation, cracking jokes, and recalling stories. (And there’s certainly no harm in flexing your social muscles earlier in life.)

While this might look like joining a pickleball league or running club, it could also just mean going for a fast-paced stroll with a neighbor or, if you have a dog, getting together with fellow dog owners to take them out. “This way, it’s less likely that you see your exercise as drudgery,” Dr. Ranganath says, which also makes you more likely to keep doing it.

4. Cut back on alcohol

You probably know that getting sloshed can leave you with zero recollection of whole swaths of a night. (They don’t call it blacking out for nothin’.) But alcohol’s effects on the brain extend beyond that: A 2022 study using data from more than 36,000 adults found that sipping a moderate amount of booze (a drink or two per day) is linked with smaller global brain volume, building on 2017 research that found even less drinking (around two to five drinks weekly) can raise your risk of atrophy (a.k.a. shrinking) of our old memory friend, the hippocampus. It’s no wonder then that heavy alcohol use (we’re talkin’ four to five drinks daily) can have severe effects on both short- and long-term memory, putting you at risk for alcohol-related dementia.

The thing is, all of this seems to be dose-dependent, Dr. Puente says, meaning that drinking a bit less—without going fully sober—can probably benefit your brain by helping you avoid some volume loss in key regions. This can be as simple as passing on that last martini on a night when you’ve already had one or two, for instance.

5. Eat lots of dark and bright plants

Let’s just say, we have thoughts on how the Mediterranean diet gets put on a cultural pedestal. But it’s also the diet that’s been studied the most in terms of brain-health benefits: Research has found that, after death, the brains of people who followed the diet (which emphasizes whole grains, fish, and plants like fruits, vegetables, and legumes and limits red meat) showed fewer signs of Alzheimer’s than those of folks who didn’t follow the diet. Separate studies have also found that Med-diet followers have thicker cortical brain regions associated with memory performance, and that the rate of Alzheimer’s in folks who closely adhere to the MIND diet (a version of the Med diet) is 53% lower than in folks who don’t follow this eating style.

But if you were to make just one Mediterranean-inspired diet tweak in your 30s, Dr. Puente says it should be eating more plants, especially of the deeply or brightly colorful varieties. The more pigmented plant foods—things like leafy greens, berries, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and citrus fruits—are high in various carotenoids, which have an antioxidant effect, helping to limit stress on parts of the brain tied to memory. And many of these foods also contain flavonols, antioxidants that have been shown to lower your dementia risk, in part by potentially improving blood flow to your brain.

6. Literally protect your head

A deceivingly basic but very important reminder: Preserving your brain function hinges on limiting bangs and bumps to your head, Dr. Turner says. After all, having a traumatic brain injury significantly increases your risk for Alzheimer’s, he adds: “We think it severs some of your brain connections, so you wind up with less of a cognitive reserve, or buffer against the decline that comes with age.”

And that’s especially salient in your 30s, when the number-one cause of death is injuries, adds Dr. Turner, who emphasizes the importance of wearing your seatbelt in a car, and if you’re playing sports or even just casually cycling, strapping on a helmet. While this might be the only literal brain shield on this list, all of these tips serve the same function: helping ensure your brain—and memory—stays intact for the years ahead.

Original article from SELF

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