Staying Sharp For Dummies Cheat Sheet - dummies
Cheat Sheet

Staying Sharp For Dummies Cheat Sheet

From Staying Sharp For Dummies

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

Make your brain work for you. Staying sharp and having an active mind are key to a healthy life as you age. Arm yourself with tips on keeping a sharp mind, informative ways to improve your memory, and ideas on how to reduce stress in order to keep sharp.

Top Tips for Keeping a Sharp Mind

To keep yourself on top of the game as you get older, there’s no way around it: You have to embrace some lifestyle changes. They can be gradual, and you can focus on one at a time. But to get any benefit, you do need to invest some effort. The more effort you make, the more benefit you get as you seek to stay sharp.

Keep your mind active

Read, travel, play games, solve crosswords, take up a hobby or two, and interact with different types of people as much as possible. Cut back on vegging out in front of the tube. The brain thrives on stimulus, and it’s up to you to keep yours stimulated. The bottom line when it comes to your brain power: Use it or lose it.

Exercise your memory

The more you are proactive about focusing on remembering people, places, and things, the better. You should always be trying out mnemonic strategies and challenging yourself to practice and maintain a good memory.

Your brain will respond and actually improve with even a little training. Try giving yourself a little test each day — say, naming as many state capitals as you can or recalling the names of people from your graduating class.

Recognize and reduce stress

Stress is like a great weight pressing down on you and making everything in your life more difficult than it needs to be. Free up your brain to work on problems that matter instead of letting a million little worries overwhelm you day after day. Relaxation techniques and meditation are powerful tools in your battle against stress.

Take nutrition seriously and eat better

The average American’s diet is in many ways appalling: It involves consuming foods full of bad fats, added sugars, and too much cholesterol; overdoing it with red meat proteins; and ignoring appropriate portion sizes. Eat to live; don’t live to eat. Cleaning up your diet can add years to your life and put your body (and therefore your brain) on firmer footing to rise to the challenges in your life.


Exercise — even walking a half hour a day — improves your cardiovascular system and boosts your brain power. Long-term inactivity can worsen just about everything about your health. Bone and muscle loss due to a sedentary lifestyle become more and more serious as you age. Exercise is vital to staying sharp.

Prevent common health concerns

Cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and stroke are dangerous and widespread problems. The good news is that you can take steps now to greatly reduce your chances of facing these threats.

Examine your own health history and your family’s and come up with a plan that aims specifically at your potential vulnerabilities. Remember the old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s true.

Keep a positive attitude

Studies have shown that having an optimistic attitude actually correlates with healthier outcomes and longer life. Finding a way to see the glass as half full really does matter. And you’re lucky: people generally become happier and more positive as they get older.

Ways to Improve Your Memory

You can do a wide variety of things to improve your memory. However, no one thing alone can give you the stellar memory skills you want and deserve. You have to be willing to make lifestyle changes to help you stay sharp.

Relax your brain

You need a calm and alert mind to be able to use your memory skills to their full potential. The basic ways to tune yourself up to be ready to remember are to get enough sleep and relaxation.

Exercise your memory

You need regular exercise to keep your body running properly. Your distant ancestors didn’t sit around all day being couch potatoes. They didn’t have couches. Of course, with today’s modern conveniences, being inactive is much easier than it used to be. But that’s no excuse. You simply have to incorporate exercise and activity into your daily routine.

Stimulate your mind

If you want to improve your memory, you have to exercise your mind. A lazy mind produces lazy memory ability.

Think of intellectual exercise as a way to keep your memory skills sharp. Engage yourself in the following:

  • Reading
  • Taking classes
  • Learning new things
  • Traveling
  • Engaging in stimulating conversation and debate

Pay attention

Remember to pay attention because you have to pay attention to remember. If you don’t pay attention, you won’t be able to move short-term memory into long-term memory. When psychological tests measure short-term memory, they’re also measuring someone’s ability to pay attention. Attention is so critical to memory that whatever you can do to improve your attention, do it.

Stay organized

By keeping yourself organized, you’ll be better able to code the things you want to remember into memories. Staying organized doesn’t mean being rigid. It means being able to differentiate your experiences and code those experiences into relevant associations to make memories that you can retrieve later.

Associate, pair, and connect

Your brain has multiple systems that provide multiple ways for you to code memories. If you use several of these systems to code information, your memories will be richer, and you’ll be able to retrieve them more easily. The more ways you can remember one thing, the better the chance you’ll remember it. If, for example, you’re trying to remember a car, you’ll be far more successful at recalling it later if you take in the car’s make, shape, color, interior design, and seat comfort.

Use memory aids

Using memory aids, such as mnemonics, provides you with ways to trick yourself into remembering. Here are three useful and easy-to-learn mnemonics.

  • The peg system: The peg system involves associating a letter or number with a word that you want to remember. For example, by associating each letter of the alphabet with a number, you can remember a string of numbers by remembering letters arranged as a word, or vice versa.

    Say your name is Deb and you want to select a PIN by associating it with your name. If you assign a number to each letter of the alphabet in order, the PIN is 4 (D), 5 (E), 2 (B). From now on, Deb is 452, and vice versa.

  • The loci system: When you use the loci system, you abide by the old real-estate rule: location, location, location. By coding your memories with specific locations, you can remember the contents of a speech by mentally attaching the first part of the speech to, say, the windows, and so on. Then later, when you’re giving the talk, you can look at those locations and be reminded of what you want to say.

  • The story system: Suppose you want to remember to alert your co-workers of an upcoming project so they can finish it by the deadline. To ensure that you remember, you tell yourself a story about a cowboy who overslept while his cattle escaped the ranch. By the time he rounded them up, he’d missed the opportunity to sell them because the neighboring ranchers beat him to it. Such a vivid little story can help you remember to be sure you remember to alert your co-workers to meet the deadline.

Keep Sharp by Reducing Stress

Certain qualities are among the most important skills and behaviors for reducing stress and creating stress resilience. How many of the attributes in the following sections describe you? If you can’t check off all (or any!) of the items, don’t worry; you can change old habits and learn new ones.

Managing your stress isn’t a magical process. It’s about mastering new behaviors and finding new ways of looking at yourself and your world. Try these tips:

  • Know how to relax. You need to know how to let go of tension, relax your body, and quiet your mind. There is no one right way to relax. Some people may favor meditation, focused breathing, and imagery, while others may prefer a more active approach such as progressive muscle relaxation.

    Attaining a state of greater relaxation isn’t limited to formal approaches. Any activity that distracts you from the stressors of your world can be relaxing: a hot bath, a stroll in the park, a cup of (decaffeinated) coffee, a good book, or a favorite TV program. All can provide a relaxing escape from stress.

  • Eat right and exercise often. The foods you eat can play an important role in controlling your stress levels — or making them worse. Your body needs a balanced, healthy diet to maximize your ability to cope. This means giving your body the right nutrients that supply you with adequate reserves of vitamins, minerals, and other essential elements. And don’t forget to drink liquids throughout the day. Your body and brain need to be adequately hydrated if you want to stay sharp.

    Engage in some form of physical activity regularly — at least three times a week and, when possible, more often. It can be participating in a sport or walking on a treadmill. Your exercise regime doesn’t have to be fancy or overdone. Walking, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and parking farther away whenever you can are often overlooked forms of exercise.

  • Don’t worry about the unimportant stuff. Know the difference between what’s truly important and what isn’t. Put things into perspective. Many — if not most — of life’s stressors are relatively inconsequential. One good way of putting things into perspective is asking yourself, “On a scale of one to ten, how would I rate the relative importance of my stressor?”

Remember that eights, nines, and tens are the biggies — major life problems such as a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, a major financial loss, losing your job, and so on. The fours, fives, sixes, and sevens are problems of moderate importance — a lost wallet, a broken-down car, or a broken water heater. The ones, twos, and threes are your minor worries or stressors — you forget your wallet, your watch battery dies, or you get a bad haircut.

  • Try not to get angry often. Anger is a stress emotion you can largely do without. Knowing how to avoid becoming angry and losing your temper is a skill well worth mastering. Learning how to control the expression of your anger can also spare you a lot of grief and regret.

    Most anger comes from distorted thinking. You may have low frustration tolerance or unrealistic expectations of others (and of yourself) that trigger you to feel angry when they aren’t met. Maybe you exaggerate your inability to cope with small discomforts by “catastrophizing and awfulizing” or creating some “can’t-stand-it-itis.” Groom yourself to be calmer and more accepting of life’s challenges instead of lashing out in anger. You’ll be healthier (lower blood pressure) and less stressed and have a better outlook on life if you take your ups and downs in stride.

  • Live according to your values. Examine your values and goals, assessing whether they truly represent who you are and where you want to go in life. Pursuing values that aren’t reflective of the kind of life you want can lead you to an unhappy and stressful place. Ask yourself, “What do I want to get out of my life? What is truly important to me?” Begin by clarifying and articulating your important wants and goals.
  • Have a good sense of humor. Laugh at life’s hassles and annoyances. Be able to laugh at yourself, and don’t take yourself too seriously. And remember that bit of wisdom, “He who laughs, lasts.”