How to Improve Your Memory
Tips to boost your memory and keep it strong for years to come.
Sometimes I think my memory is actually too good. Like when I realize I still know the lyrics to nearly every song released in the ’80s. Or that I can recite, verbatim, lines from at least half a dozen episodes of Seinfeld and Sex and the City. But then I’ll go to transfer a load of laundry into the dryer and discover that it’s already dry; seems I forgot to ever turn on the washer. Or I’ll forget my neighbor’s name — again. Could it be that sitcom dialogue and song lyrics are taking up so much brain space there’s none left for remembering when my next dentist appointment is or whether I’ve mailed the mortgage payment this month?
There’s certainly a lot more information to commit to memory these days. “I used to have one phone number, one bank account, and no passwords,” my 73-year-old mother says wistfully. “Now, between work, home, and my cell, I have four phone numbers, plus a bank-account number and PIN, and at least seven passwords, including a code for the copy machine in my office.”
She blames 21st-century information overload for her everyday memory lapses — misplacing her glasses or walking into the kitchen only to forget what she needed there. “There’s some truth to that,” says Gary Small, M.D.,director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at UCLA. “And it’s also likely that because there are more memory challenges now, our slips are more noticeable.”
But Dr. Small won’t let my mom — or me — off that easily. “Our lives may be more frenetic, but we actually have the capacity to remember much more than we do,” he says. “We simply need to work on improving our attention.”
Fortunately, research is yielding new ways to do that, to sharpen memory now and keep it strong as we get older. Read on for these short- and long-term strategies.
Tricks to Prime Your Memory
You’ve been chatting with another guest at a party. Afterward, you remember that she’s a graphic artist and that her son goes to the middle school near your house, but you have no idea what her name is. How could you forget something so basic when you can recall those other details? In truth, you didn’t. With all the facts that came at you in the course of your short conversation, you never really learned her name in the first place. Our ability to commit new information to memory slows down over the years, explains Glenn Smith, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Mayo Clinic. In order to help the process along, you need to focus your mind. These tricks will help jog your memory by forcing you to pay attention.
Repeat yourself. Locking the door, taking your vitamins, unplugging the iron — there’s a reason they’re called mindless tasks. To help get a routine activity lodged in your brain, say it out loud as you do it (“I’m popping my multi”), advises Cynthia Green, Ph.D., president of Memory Arts LLC, a company that provides memory fitness training. The same trick — repeating aloud “I’m getting the scissors” — fends off distraction as you head into the kitchen for them. Memory experts also advise that you repeat a person’s name as you’re introduced (“Hi, Alice”) and again as you finish your conversation (“Nice talking with you, Alice”), but if that feels forced, just repeat the name to yourself as you walk away.
Bite off bigger pieces. Since your brain can process only so much information at a time, try chunking bits together. By repeating a phone number as “thirty-eight, twenty-seven” instead of “3, 8, 2, 7,” you only have to remember two numbers, not four, Dr. Small points out. If you need to buy ground beef, milk, lettuce, cereal, and buns, you might think “dinner” (burgers, buns, lettuce) and “breakfast” (cereal and milk).
Give words more meaning. When you’re introduced — let’s say to Sally — you can make up a rhyme (“Sally in the alley”) or connect the name to a song (“Mustang Sally”). Some people swear by devices like mnemonics. One New York City dog owner never leaves for the morning walk without her three b’s (bags, biscuits, ball) and two t’s (telephone, tissues).
Create unlikely connections. Jennifer Rapaport, a mother of three in Somerville, MA, switches her watch to the other wrist when she needs to remember something. The oddity of not finding the watch where it should be triggers her recall.
Stop trying so hard. You’re watching an old movie on TV and can’t think of the lead actor’s name. “What is it?” you fret. “Why can’t I remember?” Then an hour later, as you’re peeling carrots, “Clark Gable” pops into your head. “Anxiety distracts us, making it even harder to remember,” says Dr. Small. De-stressing — taking deep breaths, thinking of something pleasant — can break the cycle.
Build a Better Brain
For information to get stored in our memory, it goes through stages: encoding (when you learn it) and consolidating (when it becomes fixed in long-term memory). The final step is retrieval (when you call it up). Good health habits can boost all of these.
Sleep on it. Anyone who’s ever stayed up with a new baby recognizes that next-day brain fuzziness, when it seems like nothing really registers or is available for recall later. That is what’s happening. Different parts of the brain are responsible for creating different types of memories — a face, a name, or just the recollection that you met someone, explains Gary Richardson, M.D., senior research scientist at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “Sleep is what helps knit all those memories together.” You also need sleep to make long-term memories last. Studies at Harvard Medical School have shown that when people are given a random list of words to memorize, those who then sleep will recall more words afterward than those who are tested without a chance to sack out.
Address your stress. Ever wonder why, when you’re already having a maddening day, your memory goes on the blink, too? Blame the stress hormone cortisol. When you’re on edge, it increases in the hippocampus — the brain’s control center for learning and memory — and may interfere with encoding information or retrieving it. Cumulatively, this can be serious: “As you get older, chronic elevated cortisol levels are linked to memory impairment and a smaller hippocampus,” says Shireen Sindi, a researcher in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University. Another compelling reason to deal with issues that make you stressed.
Eat to your brain’s content. Foods that keep your heart healthy are also good for your brain. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (including sardines and salmon) fight artery-damaging inflammation. Ditto for walnuts. Berries, especially blueberries, are loaded with anthocyanins — potent antioxidants that protect cells, including those in the brain. Blueberries may also have the power to create new pathways for connection in the brain: These connectors tend to die off with age, but in animal studies, blueberry consumption has been shown to help restore them, says Jim Joseph, Ph.D., director of the neuroscience lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University.
Take a walk (down memory lane). When you exercise, your brain gets a workout of its own. A new study of 161 adults ages 59 to 81 found that the hippocampus was larger in those who were physically active. “Fitness improvement — even if you’ve been sedentary most of your life — leads to an increase in volume of this brain region,” explains Art Kramer, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois and coauthor of the study. And the bigger the hippocampus, the better able you are to form new memories. You don’t have to live at the gym. “Just get out and walk for an hour a few days a week,” says Kramer.
Practice paying attention. What color hair did the barista who made your latte this morning have? Was your husband wearing a blue or red tie? Even if you’ll never need the information, forcing yourself to observe and recall the details of your day sharpens your memory, says Dr. Small.
Play mind games. Doing something mentally challenging — working a crossword puzzle, learning an instrument — creates fresh connections in your brain. “You can actually generate new cells in the hippocampus,” says Peter Snyder, Ph.D., professor of clinical neurosciences at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. Those new cells build cognitive reserves that are important for creating new memories and may protect against memory loss — even dementia — later in life. Games that work to improve processing speed may deliver an extra boost, Smith has found. In a group of older adults, his (company-funded) studies of the computer game Brain Fitness showed that players had a significant improvement in cognitive skills, including memory, compared with those in a control group. Anything that requires working against the clock can help. “A timed game like Boggle or Simon will force you to pay attention, work quickly, and think flexibly,” says Green.
Test Your Memory
You need about 30 minutes for this quiz (although the exercise itself takes less than five). Set a timer for two minutes, then study the words below. When the bell rings, put the list aside and do something else that will distract you — check e-mail, read the paper. Twenty minutes later, write down as many of the words as you remember (in any order):
What Your Score Means
8 or more words: You’re a memory superstar. Make sure you follow the long-term strategies so you’ll keep your title.
5 to 7 words: This is typical for a middle-aged person. Learning a few brain-boosting tricks will help.
4 or fewer words: A low score doesn’t mean you’re headed for senility, but you should take a look at your life — the issue may be your stress levels — to see what might be interfering with your memory. — Gary Small, M.D., author of iBrain (HarperCollins)