Until recently, scientists thought we were born with a fixed number of brain cells and it was all downhill from there.

Today, we know that memory and problem solving are skills you can sharpen at any age. We asked Aaron Nelson, the chief of neuropsychology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Achieving Optimal Memory, to tell us exactly how to do it.

When does memory start to deteriorate naturally? "That depends on the type of memory. For example, what we call procedural memories—knowing how to drive a car or brush your teeth—are incredibly resilient. So are fact-based memories, like what's the capital of France or who's the president of the United States. It's our episodic memories, the ones bound in space and time, like what you ate last week or where you went on vacation in 2010, that take the biggest hit. That can start to happen as young as 30."

In what ways do diets and exercise affect the brain? "You've got all these blood vessels that originate in the heart and extend to the brain. They start out large and then get smaller, and by the time they reach a point deep within the brain, they're threadlike. It doesn't take much to block them, especially if you eat large amounts of processed foods, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and fried foods that are high in trans fats and raise cholesterol, leading to the production of artery-clogging plaque. We also have persuasive research that moderate exercise—30 to 60 minutes five days a week—helps prevent memory loss. Not boot camp, just moderate exercise."

What about crossword puzzles and Words With Friends? "They won't hurt, but we need to get away from the idea that you can give your brain an intense workout like you give your body at the gym. Make intellectual activities a part of your life regularly by getting together with friends to discuss a book or taking a language class. Exercising your brains means engaging in new thoughts."

How else can we keep from losing our edge? "Don't overstuff your brain. We weren't designed to hold all the email addresses, telephone numbers, and passwords that we accumulate today. Those belong in your smartphone. But if you do learn information that you know will be useful to you later, take notes and repeat it, silently and aloud. It'll be easier to remember."

What should we not do? "Smoking is bad for heart and brain health, which affects all kinds of mental processing, but everybody knows that."

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