New study shows memory decline can be slowed – here’s how to do it

Completing puzzles and visiting friends could be key to optimising brain function

We’ve all walked into the kitchen and forgotten why. Or spent an age searching for our car keys only to discover they’re in our hand.  

Maybe you’ve been introduced to someone and instantly forgotten their name. Sometimes our memory just won’t work no matter how hard we try.  

Age-associated memory impairment is considered a normal part of ageing and is not an automatic precursor to dementia. It doesn’t affect your ability to complete your usual daily tasks or learn new things, it’s just one of life’s annoyances.  

man completing puzzles on a tabletCredit: Shutterstock/ – Yuri A

Results of a ten year study in China have suggested that lifestyle could be a key to slowing memory decline. At present, around 40% of us will experience some form of memory loss after the age of 65, but the more healthy lifestyle factors we can combine, the greater our chances are at staving this off.  

The study began in 2009, with researchers looking at a group of 29,000 people over 60. Participants had their memory tested and were also screened for the APOE gene, which is the strongest risk-factor gene for Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

The subjects were studied over a decade, with memory assessments at intervals throughout.   

Six lifestyle factors were used to score the participants; a healthy diet; regular exercise; social contact; alcohol consumption; smoking habits and cognitive activity.  

Subjects were then put into lifestyle groups based upon scores. Favourable (four to six healthy factors), average (two to three healthy factors) and unfavourable (zero to one).  

Participants were separated according to whether they were carriers of the APOE gene or not.  

Researchers discovered that each individual healthy factor contributed to slowing memory decline, and the more factors combined, the better the results.  

People carrying the APOE gene who combined more healthy living factors also experienced a slower rate of memory decline than the least healthy people who did not carry the gene.  

Overall, the BMJ reports that people in the ‘favourable’ and ‘average’ groups were up to 90% and 30% respectively less likely to develop dementia or mild cognitive impairment compared to the least healthy.  

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These findings are backed up by a similar study of American women. Whilst the actual report isn’t published yet, the preliminary findings are about to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology‘s annual meeting in April.

As reported in The Guardian, this newer study looked at 13,720 women who were, on average, age 54 when the project began. Participants were monitored for two decades, and given health scores based on seven factors.

Being active, eating a good diet, not smoking, having healthy blood pressure, low cholesterol, maintaining low blood sugar and keeping a healthy weight were all deemed important lifestyle factors in potentially keeping dementia at bay.

By the end of the study, 1771 women had developed dementia (13%). Participants were given a score based on the lifestyle factors listed, with zero points for poor or intermediate health, and one point for ideal health, for a total score of up to seven points.

After adjustment for factors including age and education, researchers suggest that for every one point increase in the score, a person’s risk of dementia fell by 6%.

Although this study is very new, and there are limitations to its results (such as whether quitting smoking has an impact), it’s clear to see from the two studies combined that the more healthy lifestyle habits we can adopt, the greater chance we’re giving ourselves against health conditions in the future.

What exactly does it mean to adopt these healthy lifestyle habits, and how can we expect them to slow our memory decline?  

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Eat well

Healthy diet

A healthy diet was the strongest factor in slowing memory decline in the study. For the purposes of the experiment, this was deemed to be eating from at least seven of the following twelve food groups: fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy, salt, oil, eggs, cereals, legumes, nuts, and tea. 

The NHS uses the Eatwell guide to show what a healthy diet should look like. It’s a handy frame of reference to ensure all food groups are catered for and includes advice on how to get your five-a-day.  

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins that can help aid memory.  

Carbohydrates, such as bread, cereals, and legumes, give us energy, which by default aids brain function because we want to do more.  

Meanwhile, a diet rich in healthy fats such as oily fish, nuts and oils, can increase vitamin D in the body – another vitamin that can support brain health.

Studies have shown that the MIND diet may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. This way of eating isn’t a strict, regimented diet – it just means focusing on including foods good for brain health as listed above.  

MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and combines the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets with the aim of reducing dementia and the decline in brain health.  

The MIND diet encourages you to eat a diet rich in leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, and poultry.  

two females completing a crossword puzzle togetherCredit: Shutterstock / Dragon Images

Sharpen the mind

Cognitive activity

When it comes to brain health, it really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. The second-most important health factor in the report was cognitive activity- using our brains.   

That doesn’t necessarily mean writing an in-depth essay on molecular biology (though you might like to, of course), but simply keeping the brain active each day is enough to count as a healthy lifestyle behaviour that can help memory.   

Puzzles are a great way to exercise the grey matter, and a study by the University of Exeter showed that regular crosswords and puzzle solving are linked to maintaining a sharper brain.  

Crosswords, codewords, sudoku… the possibilities are vast.  There’s lots of brain training apps out there too, with a mix of different language and number-based games. 

The study also cites playing cards and writing as good options, and we’ve found playing games – online or board games- is a great way to engage the mind whilst also gaining social contact. If you’ve never experienced the joy that is Mario Kart, now is the time to try.    

There are a wealth of online communities focused around cognitive activities, meaning you can play Scrabble with friends and family or with a stranger on the other side of the world.   

It’s easy to get lost on the internet in a mindless scroll of social media, but don’t forget it’s an amazing resource of information and activity. Sure, you know that it can be a tool to research your family tree, learn a new language, or follow news channels across the world – but you actually have to make time to engage with these possibilities.

Couple jogging holding water bottlesCredit: Shutterstock / NDAB Creativity

Keep fit

Regular exercise

NHS guidelines state that all adults should aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise.  

The study based their classification of ‘regular exercise’ on the same principle.  

Those 150 minutes can be made up any way you choose and can take many forms. For example, you might swim for an hour, or walk for 30 minutes. You may decide to take a spin class, lift some weights, or go skiing.  

Across the week, your 150 minutes could be made up by exercising every other day, or you might take the dog for a walk each morning. 150 minutes is not a finite target, either. Do you want to move more? Do it!  

“Looking to be more physically active, in whatever way works for us, and within our own capabilities, is great for our physical and mental health,” Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director for Age UK told Saga Exceptional.  

Walking more, breaking up long periods of sitting, joining a group, or taking a up a new activity are all helpful. Even a small amount of movement can make a big difference.  

“Making regular exercise a key part of our routine is one of the best ways to stay well and therefore sustain our health, wellbeing, and independence.” 

Consistent exercise offers a multitude of health benefits, including keeping our heart and lungs healthy. There are cognitive benefits too; exercise is proven to reduce stress and anxiety as well as improving mood and sleep. All of this helps memory and brain function.  

One study found that cognitive decline is twice as significant in people who don’t exercise regularly.  

Physical activities that encourage focus are also a great choice. Gardening engages body and mind, and a slower activity such as Tai Chi can build a strong brain and body connection by focusing us better over how we move.  


Group of friends taking a selfieCredit: Shutterstock / simona pilolla 2


Social contact

By nature, humans are social beings. How sociable we are might differ for everyone, or even vary by what type of day we’re having, but overall, human interaction was found to be a strong contributor to slowing memory decline.  

Studies are limited, but evidence suggests that social engagement can reduce stress, and help us retain thinking skills later in life.  

Either way, being sociable is good for us. It makes us feel happier, we get to have meaningful conversation with others, and it can leave us feeling energised.  

“Being actively involved with a group, a friend, or family members produces social, cognitive and physical health benefits and, of course, it can provide great pleasure and be a lot of fun too,” Abrahams told us.  

“Going for a walk together, chatting as you go, keeps your brain active and well as your body. Spending time with others helps to combat boredom, loneliness and social isolation, all of which can contribute to cognitive decline.” 

“The best advice we can offer everyone is to proactively look for ways you can be active in all respects, to support your body and your brain and to make life more enjoyable too.” 

Joining a class or society, either related to an existing hobby or for something brand new, is a good place to start. Forming social contacts across generations and spending time with younger family members or friends as well as peers are also good options.  

Remember, social contact can take many forms as well, it doesn’t always need to be face to face. There are plenty of online groups and forums to connect with no matter your interest.

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Try a mocktail

No alcohol

When we read ‘no alcohol’ as one of the healthy lifestyle factors, our first thought was how restrictive it sounds.  

The participants were grouped as follows: never drinking (never drank or drank occasionally), low to excess drinking (daily alcohol consumption of 1-60 g), and heavy drinking (daily alcohol consumption greater than 60 g). 

The ‘never drinking’ category was found to be a healthy lifestyle factor.  

Except… that category name is rather misleading, since it says the participants either never drank or drank occasionally. So, we could take it, therefore, that some of the participants in that group had, for example, a glass of wine a week, but were still classed as obtaining a healthy lifestyle factor.  

The next category up was said to have daily alcohol consumption of 1-60g.  

For reference, 8g is equal to one unit of alcohol and the NHS does state that there’s no ‘safe’ level of drinking.  

However, for many it is an enjoyable and social activity, and if you are going to drink, the NHS recommends you don’t exceed 14 units a week (112g).  

Hand crushing cigarettesCredit: Shutterstock / Nopphon_1987

Quit cigarettes

No smoking

The dangers of smoking are well-documented, and the effects it can have on health. So, it’s no surprise to learn that those who didn’t smoke, or those who had quit at least three years before the study began, were considered as having the healthiest lifestyle factor.  

Smoking dramatically increases our risk of many cancers including lung and mouth cancers, as well as heart disease, COPD, and stroke.  

It’s never too late to quit, and there are many excellent resources out there to help you succeed. Stopping smoking not only improves your physical health but can help your mental health too, reducing anxiety and stress.  

Smoking is an expensive habit, and while everyone understands it’s a very hard habit to break, there are huge upsides beyond the health benefits. The money you save could be put towards supporting another healthy lifestyle factor. Why not use it to join a gym, or pick up a new social activity?  

Group of friends playing cardsCredit: Shutterstock/ Prostock-Studio

You might be thinking that applying six healthy lifestyle factors to daily living might be a lot, but the beauty of this list is that a lot of them can combine.  

Maybe you decide to get more active and ask a friend to join you for regular walks. So, you’re exercising whilst being social.  

That in turn might prompt you to eat a healthier diet, because you know that exercise and nutrition go hand in hand. Eating better makes you feel better, so there’s no room for smoking in your life now. To keep your hands busy you take up crosswords… you get the picture.  

The results of the Chinese study are interesting and confirm what a lot of us were already thinking; diet, exercise and a positive lifestyle make a huge difference to the quality of our lives.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her


Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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