Never stop learning or challenging yourself


Lost your keys – again? Forget why you opened that refrigerator door? Your friend’s name escapes you?

Memory glitches are part of aging, but there are ways to make your brain sharper.

“There is good news and bad news about memory and aging,” says Rob Winning-ham, professor of psychology and gerontology, and chair of the Behavioral Sciences Division at Western Oregon University. WOU is the first in the state to offer a major or minor in gerontology.

“The good news is we know more and more information as we get older,” Winningham adds. “And that knowledge usually remains, unless there is a significant problem such as dementia or brain injury. The knowledge and experience older adults have often translates into wisdom, which is valuable for the individual and their community. Now the bad news is that as we get older, our ability to pay attention and make new memories is affected.”

According to Winning-ham, many of the cognitive and memory challenges associated with aging can be reduced or delayed if people stay mentally and physically active.

“Avoiding mood problems, such as depression and anxiety, can also serve as a protective effort,” he says. “Also, research has clearly shown that a combination of aerobic and resistance training leads to improvements in attention and concentration, even if one is experiencing mild cognitive impairment.”

Besides staying mentally and physically active, recent research shows that mindfulness training or meditation can also improve abilities that can be impaired as people age, Winningham says.

“Meditation can be as simple as focusing on your breathing for 10 minutes and trying not to think about other things,” he says. “There are even apps you can buy for a smart phone or tablet that help teach people how to do it.”

Additionally, Winningham says people should never stop learning or challenging themselves.

“We should try to live active lives that have meaning and purpose,” he says. “Take a class at a senior center or community college. Develop a new hobby. Volunteer. Join a book club or other organization. Visit with friends. And engage in targeted mental exercises like Sudoku and word searches. There are some good apps and websites available.”

A pilot program conducted at WOU to assess available products produced the following apps for tablets liked by the researchers: Lumosity, Fit Brains, Memory Block, Watch That!, Tetris, Sud-oku2, The Stroop Effect, Chain of Thought, and This is to This as That is to That.

Another key step is to get enough sleep, Winningham says.

“Sleep deprivation or insomnia can wreak havoc on memory ability,” he says. “I would also avoid or get the following conditions treated as they can directly or indirectly lead to problems: diabetes, depression, anxiety and high blood pressure.”

Winningham advises eating right by avoiding high glycemic food — sugary foods or simple carbohydrates — to help maintain one’s mental ability throughout the day. He also advises consulting a physician about taking a fish oil supplement, which could help cognitive ability in older adulthood.

“Recognizing that the earlier one starts making the lifestyle changes associated with better brain health, the better off you will be,” Winningham says. “But also recognize that it is not too late, even if one is beginning to have some memory challenges.”

Winningham often discusses the latest research on brain health at various locations through Marion and Polk counties. To view when and where upcoming presentations will take place, visit

Dr. Winningham’s

five ways to maximize brain health

  1. Physical Exercise — Get moving. Research shows that a combination of aerobic training and lifting weights can improve key cognitive abilities such as the ability to concentrate and make new memories.

  2. Cognitive exercise — Keep thinking and learning. Research shows that doing activities like Sudoku, word searches, and even some video games designed to exercise the brain, can have a positive impact on cognitive abilities.

  3. Focus — Research shows that mindfulness meditation training, such as focusing on your breath, can improve memory and emotional control.

  4. Eat right — Avoid sugary foods that could lead to diabetes and talk to your medical provider about whether fish oil is right for you. There is research that indicates people who eat more fish (or take a fish oil supplement) have some cognitive advantages.

  5. Socialize — Published research shows that those who are most socially active are least likely to develop dementia. Maybe this is because socializing can be cognitively stimulating.


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