5 ways to keep your wits about you in midlife

Memory like a sieve? Don’t fret. Here’s how to improve cognition and maintain your mental focus in midlife.

As the years tick on, it’s natural to wonder if your cognitive abilities are still as sharp as they used to be, and memory lapses and the occasional mental fog can be frustrating and alarming.

“A lot of people, when they start getting older, worry that they’re getting dementia, but it’s important to remember that some aspects of cognition do typically diminish over time and it’s just a normal part of ageing,” clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Dr Marjorie Collins says.

“You think, ‘Where did I put my keys? Where did I put that book?’, but many times it’s not a memory problem, it’s an attention problem – you’ve put the keys down and just haven’t paid much attention.”

Nutritionist and holistic counsellor Fiona Kane says part of the problem is that many of us are living overly busy and complicated lives.

“Particularly the sandwich generation, those women and men who’ve got kids and ageing parents and a career are feeling overwhelmed a lot of the time,” Fiona says.

“It can affect your memory and makes you think there’s something wrong with you when you’re simply stressed.”

The good news is, there are some simple brain boosters to help keep your grey matter fighting fit.

Brain boosters to keep your mind healthy in midlife

1. Test your cognitive function at home

Looking for reassurance that your mind is as sharp as it should be?

There are many quick and easy online tests you can do at home to assess your memory, attention and problem-solving skills.

It could also be worthwhile having a chat with your GP, suggests Dr Collins.

“Your GP is also a good first port of call and can exclude other factors, such as anxiety or depression, which can have a profound impact on your memory,” Dr Collins says.

2. Maintain a healthy diet

Many people, especially women, don’t eat enough protein as they age, Fiona says.

“Proteins in our diet affect brain performance because they provide the amino acids that make up our neurotransmitters,” she says.

Foods containing nutrients including the B vitamins, vitamins E and D, and omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked with improved cognitive function.

3. Exercise regularly

One of the easiest and best things you can do to keep your mind sharp is stay physically active, Dr Collins advises.

Regular physical activity is thought to help maintain blood flow to the brain, with one 2020 study concluding it could potentially help delay one-third of dementia cases worldwide.

“Make it something you enjoy and do about 30 minutes a day, even just a good, brisk walk outside,” Dr Collins says.

4. Get sufficient shut-eye

Your brain, along with your body, needs rest, and countless studies have shown sufficient sleep is crucial for cognitive function.

But, as we age, our sleep patterns can change.

“It (getting sufficient sleep) is the one thing that can become a challenge, particularly for women as they start to get into perimenopause,” Fiona says.

“When possible, aim to get at least seven hours a night.”

If your sleep issues persist, speak to your doctor.

5. Explore mnemonics

Mnemonics are strategies that you can use to improve your memory, Dr Collins says, and can be used to help you remember names, numbers and even a grocery list.

“Developing a rhyme or funny association for someone’s name can make it more tangible,” she explains.

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Written by Liz McGrath.