Memory Boosters

20 Easy Ways to Boost Your Memory
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Worried about fading brain power? If you're older than 27, you have good reason. That's the age when cognitive skills start to decline, according to University of Virginia research. But while some changes in thinking and memory are inevitable as we age, the good news is that lifestyle seems to be able to blunt those effects -- and keep many minds working sharply well into old age.

That's reassuring, given headlines from the Alzheimer's Association's annual report showing that every 68 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's (the most common form of dementia).

Debilitating memory loss doesn't happen to everyone, though. Learn what you can do to preserve yours.

Memory Booster #1. Take the stairs

Exercise benefits your head as much as the rest of your body, a growing number of studies indicate. Overall cardiorespiratory fitness also lowers the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems -- all known risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. Theories on why that's so range from improved blood flow to the brain to less brain shrinkage.

Experts recommend making regular aerobic workouts part of your routine. Failing that, it appears that even small efforts add up. So avoid elevators. Park at the far end of the parking lot. Start by walking around your block in the evenings, and add a few minutes more each day.

Memory Booster #2: Change your wallpaper

When doing routine things, the brain runs on autopilot. Novelty, on the other hand, literally fires up the brain as new data creates and works new neural pathways.

So shake up what you see and do every day: If your computer screen background is "invisible" to you, run a program that mixes it up every day or every hour. Take a different route home from work. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. Buy, borrow, or download a book that makes you think about new ideas.

Memory Booster #3. Steal some zzz's by daylight

It's while you're sleeping that your brain sorts, consolidates, and stores memories accumulated during the day -- that's why eight hours at night is so valuable. But a mere six-minute nap is as valuable as a full night's sleep to short-term recall, according to German research. And a 90-minute nap has been shown to speed up the process that helps the brain consolidate long-term memories.

Memory Booster #4. Take a mental "photograph"

Memories aren't just stored in one spot in the brain; bits of data are processed and stored in different areas. To help make the memory of an incident last, take a "snapshot" of it while you're in the moment, using all your senses. Look around and think about what you see. Notice colors and textures. What do you smell? If you're eating or drinking (or kissing), what's the taste?

This "mental camera" trick can help you hang onto a happy memory longer. But it can also help you remember where you parked your car.

Memory Booster #5. Eat less

After only 12 weeks, healthy volunteers (average age 60) who reduced their daily calories by 30 percent scored 20 percent better on memory tests, University of Munster (Germany) researchers have reported. The possible reason: decreased levels of insulin, created when the body processes food, and of the inflammation-associated molecule C-reactive protein. Both factors are linked to improved memory function.

The people in the study were cautioned not to consume fewer than 1,200 calories a day. If cutting back on your diet by nearly a third seems too daunting, focus on eating less fat, meat, and dairy products. Columbia University Medical Center researchers reported that in a long-term study of more than 1,300 participants, those with the highest adherence to a Mediterranean diet -- rich in vegetables, legumes, fish, and monounsaturated oils (like olive oil) but low in fat, beef, and dairy -- had the lowest risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.

Memory Booster #6. Try a "brain-training" game -- or join a "brain gym"

The science is promising, if not conclusive, as to whether so-called brain-fitness software can actually improve memory. A study in the April 2009 *Journal of the American Geriatric Society* shows that people over 65 who used a computerized cognitive training program for an hour a day, over a period of eight weeks, improved memory and attention more than a control group.

Memory Booster #7. Spend some time online

Neuroscientist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Memory & Aging Center and author of *iBrain*, says searching the Web is a bit like using a brain-training course. His researchers used MRI to measure brain activity in Web users ages 55 to 76; the net-savvy users showed twice as much brain activity, especially regarding decision making.

Memory Booster #8. Stop and sip a cuppa

Green and black teas have a protective effect on memory, possibly by influencing enzymes in the brain. The caffeine sparks concentration, too. And people who drink moderate amounts of coffee at midlife -- as many as three to five cups -- have lower odds of developing dementia in late life, Finnish and French researchers say.

Another benefit: Taking a coffee or tea break in your day (or three times a day) is a good opportunity for destressing.

Memory Booster #9. See a doctor if you feel depressed

Maybe it's "just a mood." But untreated depression is common and can impair memory. Talk therapy and/or antidepressant medication can resolve the problem. Two red flags worth mentioning to a physician: a loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure and a persistent sense of hopelessness.

People at higher risk for depression include caregivers of older people and those who have a family history of depression.

Memory Booster #10. Take the "multi" out of your tasking

Especially when they're trying to learn something new, people remember less well later if they were multitasking while learning, UCLA researchers have shown. If, for example, you're studying while listening to the radio, your memory recall may be dependent on the music to help you later retrieve the information during the test -- except, of course, that you can't usually replicate the same circumstances (like music during a test).

Try to learn something new -- reading a contract or directions, copying a skill -- when you can give it your full concentration. Cut out distractions like the TV in the background or pausing every few seconds when you hear the "ding" of your e-mail or text-message inbox.

Memory Booster #11. Keep your blood sugar under control

If you're diabetes-free, work to maintain a normal weight and follow a balanced diet to reduce your odds of developing the disease. If you're a type 2 diabetic already, follow medical advice for managing blood sugar levels.

Research shows that brain functioning subtly slows as diabetics' blood sugar rises and the blood vessels that supply the brain are damaged. This process begins well before memory problems become obvious, or even before there's a diabetes diagnosis.

Memory Booster #12. Waggle your eyes back and forth

To help you remember something important, scan your eyes from side to side for 30 seconds. This little exercise helps unite the two hemispheres of the brain, say researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. When the two hemispheres communicate well, you're better able to retrieve certain types of memories.

Memory Booster #13. Eat your green vegetables

There's no such thing as an "anti-Alzheimer's diet." But people who are deficient in folate and vitamin B12 have an increased risk of developing dementia. (The research is iffy, in comparison, on the benefits of taking so-called memory enhancers: vitamin C supplements, ginkgo biloba, and vitamin E.)

Great vegetable sources of folate include romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and beets. For you vegetable haters, the nutrient is also abundant in lentils, calf's liver, pinto beans, and black beans.

Memory Booster #14. Don't ignore sleep apnea

People with sleep apnea -- a condition involving blocked airways that causes people to briefly stop breathing during sleep -- show declines in brain tissue that stores memory, researchers at UCLA have reported.

More than 12 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea. If your doctor has suggested you have the condition, be vigilant about trying treatment, which can include wearing oral appliances and "masks," losing weight, and surgery.

Memory Booster #15. Learn something new that's a real departure for you

If you're a sudoku fan, you might think a good way to stretch your mind would be to take up a different Japanese numbers game, like kenken or kakuro. But an even better strategy for a nimble brain is to pursue a new kind of activity using skills far different from those you're accustomed to using.

If you ordinarily like numbers, try learning a language. If you're an ace gardener, try painting flowers instead.

Memory Booster #16. Quit smoking

The relationship between smoking and Alzheimer's disease is hazy. But smokers do develop the disease years earlier than nonsmokers.

In case you were looking for another good reason to quit.

Memory Booster #17. Eat some chocolate!

Every year some study extols the virtue of dark chocolate, and the effects of this wonder-food (or, at least, wonderful food) on memory have not gone ignored by researchers. In 2007, a *Journal of Neuroscience *study reported on the memory-boosting effects in rats of a plant compound called epicatechin, possibly because it fueled blood vessel growth.

In addition to cocoa, epicatechin is found in blueberries, grapes, and tea.

Memory Booster #18. Put everything in its place

While novelty is like growth hormone to the brain, your memory needs a certain amount of familiarity to keep your life functioning smoothly. Place your keys and glasses in the same place all the time. Write notes to yourself as reminders (the very act of writing will help your recall). If you want to remember your umbrella tomorrow morning, place it right at the door, so you won't miss it.

Memory Booster #19. Don't retire

Good news for those who can no longer afford to quit: Provided you like your work, you're helping your brain by sticking with it as long as you can. A satisfying work life offers social stimulation and decision-making opportunities -- and exercises problem-solving skills.

Next best: Volunteering, such as at a school or museum, where your training involves learning new material and the task involves interacting with others.

Memory Booster #20. Throw a party

Being around other people lowers one's risk of developing dementia. The catch: They should be people you enjoy who make you feel engaged and stimulated. People who are physically isolated (not around people) or emotionally isolated (around people but feeling lonely nevertheless) are at higher risk for depression.

Just go easy on the alcohol at those parties. Studies on its effect on memory are mixed. Long-term, excessive drinking is clearly linked with dementia. Binge drinking also impairs short-term memory. On the other hand, for people who drink moderately (one drink a day), alcohol may have a protective effect. One study found that in people with mild cognitive impairment (mild memory loss that doesn't necessarily advance to dementia), those who drink less than one drink a day progressed to dementia at a rate 85 percent slower than teetotalers who didn't drink at all.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 2 years, said...

Thank you for caring and sharing this vital and informative information. I have a question for you that i'd like your thoughts on if you don't mind. Pardon the pun. When you're compiling the list of these things that are well known and are documented to improve our memories. What about, what I think is even more important than what was listed and that is our own thoughts and how do they come into play. Do you or have you ever considered this? Please elaborate on this any of your thoughts on this subject please! Thank you :>

almost 4 years, said...

Silva Mind? Yes, indeed. I have long used their three finger technique, bringing the tips of the fingers together in what looks like a kind of Buddhist meditation hand pose. The purpose: simply a cue, to alert the mind to 'focus up and get with it." If you learn this easy exercise and practice it, The Three Fingers can serve as a sort of brain calisthenic to wake you up and give your attention muscles a nudge!

almost 4 years, said...

I have developed a game I play with myself -- when I go to the market to 'pick up a few things'..I see if I can carry the list in my head (I know in some types of memory loss which are advanced, this is not possible, but for mine it still works). For example, if I need eggs, tuna fish and cat food.. I imagine my cat Jake in the kitchen with an apron on..boiling eggs, opening a can of tuna fish..and getting his OWN bowl of food ready before he fixes a salad for Ric and me!! The more absurd the picture, the better!! I always laugh and remember all this when I get to the market. Just as a brain flex exercise it works wonders. And hey, listen...even if it DOESN'T help, it sure makes me laugh out loud!!

almost 4 years, said...

Excellent information. I personally know about this situation. I had a stroke and suffer from short term memory loss. I am not complaining, I am lucky to be alive. I spent 4 months in the hospital (and I do not remember a moment of that part of my life) and then an additional 4+ months in a nursing home. I had to learn how to do everything over again. Feed myself, walk, bathe myself, etc. But, what I did in my past life does not involve what I do in my current life. I live every day of my life as though it could be my last. I am not old by any means. I am only in my 50's. I have a daughter and three wonderful granddaughters. Never take one moment for granted. it could be your last!

almost 4 years, said...

How about 'get out and shmooze' (a Yiddish word meaning to talk, chat, pass the time in conversation). I make it a point every single day to engage with neighbors, even strangers on the bus. And in doing so, I will nearly always have to recall an event that has happened previously, so I can then relate it to the person whose 'ear' I happen to be bending! A useful device for keeping your grey matter supple..Great fun, too!

almost 4 years, said...

Some of the information was new to me.

almost 4 years, said...

Now that I've been retired for over 2 yrs, I'm finding boredom setting in, so I tend to read much online as well as volunteering at the local Senior Center to do data processing to keep busy as well as receive a small real estate tax rebate in return. Being active mentally and physically surely helps!

almost 4 years, said...

Cut down bad habits to improve not only your health but also you memory power which gives tremendous self confidence to lead a happy life.

almost 4 years, said...

The list is mostly commonsense and is a good enumeration. I am definitely going to try to waggle my eyes. This is absolutely new info for me. However, on 'See a doctor if you feel depressed' I can't fully agree. I do not rule out seeking medical help in cases of chronic depression, but by and large, however, if it is a mood matter, a brisk walk/a good funny movie or play will help much more than a doc who will prescribe medicines. If it is a more persistent feeling of emptiness, a vacation/change of scene may help. With considerable experience of facing utterly depressing situations, I have concluded that the company of caring friends and family is one of the ways to handle it. They can empathize with you much better than a strange doctor does and will surely not mind spending the time for you. If you have a family physician, it is a different matter of course, but this breed is vanishing.

almost 4 years, said...

Everything is "doable"! Thanks

almost 5 years, said...

I learned something new.

almost 5 years, said...

I'm glad that I have been engaging in Nos. 1, 3, 7, 17, 18, and especially 19 (although without any pay) spontaneously all along. The Silva Method of mind self-control is likewise very helpful - in fact, it is the very best you can do for yourself - I practise it since 1992.

about 5 years, said...

I learned some new things...

about 5 years, said...

Thanks I especially liked the bit about waggling your eyes to unite the two hemispheres as I had never heard it before

about 5 years, said...

Thanks for putting together this list! There are only a couple of items I scoffed at -- the one saying never to multitask (because there are people out there such as myself who can't live without listening to music while doing other things) and the one saying to socialize all the time (on behalf of those people who are very much introverts and find socializing a draining activity). But these two are nitpicking based on how conditional they are. The rest is pretty awesomely grounded in common sense. BTW, I don't believe this is on the list but it's very important to keep your blood pressure in check too, because I believe I read somewhere that continually high blood pressure does a number on your brain, and to keep SOME fat on you, because overweight (vs. obese, mind you) people tend to be less susceptible to dementia than people of "normal" weight or underweight people.

about 5 years, said...

I have some new ideas to "stretch" my brain functions and plan to share these ideas with others. We will ALL benefit.

about 5 years, said...

Several of these I knew, some I didn't; so new helpful information. Reading this to my mother who has mild dementia encourages her to try something new. Somehow, if I read it on the internet, it must be true. Thanks.

about 5 years, said...

#18 A place for everthing and everything in it's place. I was taught this by my Grandmother.

about 5 years, said...

Lots of encouraging info here, as well as info on things to avoid.

about 5 years, said...

I am almost 65, have MS (diagnosed in 1985), and have memory-problems (not too severe) and this article gave me some good information. One question, though, you mentioned physical exercise-I am in a wheel-chair so this isn't much help to me-I guess I should just keep up with mental exercises as much as possible-thank you

about 5 years, said...

Very knowledgeable information and facts of what is good/bad relative to retaining one's memory in advancing years.

about 5 years, said...

Is the Univ.of Virginia makeing a statement that through their years of research that there is'nt much there---- get used to it--------thats life----

about 5 years, said...

Great article and useful tip! Thank you!!!