There are many causes for people’s memory to “slip”. These include medication side effects, dementia, depression, medical conditions, and unhealthy lifestyle choices. By addressing the underlying cause, it is possible that memory can be improved. For example, if a medication is responsible, discontinuing or changing that medication can have a beneficial effect.
While normal aging can cause some forgetfulness, it does not lead to dramatic memory loss. When memory loss cannot be attributed to a specific cause, or normal aging appears to be responsible, the following measures can help provide traction for a “slipping” memory.
- Challenge your mind. The saying “use it or lose it” applies equally well to the mind as it does to our muscles. The more you work out your brain, the better you’ll be able to remember information. One scientific study showed that older Americans can improve their memory by instituting a memory-improvement plan that included regular mental exercises, such as working crossword puzzles. A second study found that elderly individuals who frequently engaged in leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, or dancing were less likely to develop dementia in the future. The best brain exercising activities challenge you to develop and use new brain pathways. Activities that appear to be particularly helpful include those that are new or unfamiliar and those that take some mental effort to perform.
- Learn “tricks” to help boost memory. Here are a few examples:
- Put frequently misplaced items, such as your wallet or purse, keys, and glasses in the same place each day.
- Use a date book or electronic organizer to keep track of appointments, telephone numbers, or “things to do”.
- Repeat the names of people when you meet them. For example, if you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: “So, John, what line of work are you in?”
- Use mnemonics to help you remember. In a name mnemonic, the first letter of each word in a list of items is used to form a name of a person or thing. For example, using the first letter of the colors of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) makes the name, Roy G. Biv.
- Visual association operates on the principle that to remember a new piece of information, it helps to associate it with something else. For example, to remember that Robert’s last name is Green, you could visualize him wearing green clothes while putting a green ball on a golf green.
- “Chunking” breaks a long list of numbers, such as a telephone number, or other types of information into smaller, more manageable chunks. A common example involves breaking down a 10-digit telephone number in to three sets of numbers.
- Remembering by “not trying”. Sometimes trying to remember too hard can inhibit memory. Performing a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing, or just thinking about something else can help bring a buried thought to the surface.
- Rhyming is one of the oldest methods in memorization. The rhyme “30 days hath September, April, June, and November…” is a well-known example of this technique to remember the number of days in each month.
- Exercise. Research has found that aerobic exercise helps to maintain short-term memory, which is the type used extensively in recalling names, directions, and telephone numbers. Additionally, people who exercise regularly are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia.
- Get plenty of sleep. This is the time that the brain “files away” newly acquired information for later retrieval. In addition to affecting memory, sleep deprivation compromises your problem solving ability, creativity, and critical thinking.
- Eat “memory foods”. Evidence is accumulating regarding the benefits on brain health of eating foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of these include cold water fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, and herring), walnuts, flaxseed oil, and soybeans. Foods high in antioxidants, in particular colorful fruits and vegetables, may also help in maintaining memory.
- Manage stress. Chronic stress can affect an area of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories are stored. There is evidence to support the role of meditation in helping to reduce stress and improve memory. Yoga, exercise, massage, prayer, deep breathing, visualization exercises, and listening to soothing music are other healthy ways of managing stress.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks. These impairments are usually reversible in the occasional drinker. In alcoholics, alcohol-induced damage to the brain can lead to permanent memory deficits.
The belief that age-related memory loss is inevitable can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By not accepting this cliché, and practicing memory-preserving measures, you have a much better chance of avoiding cognitive decline and keeping your mind sharp.