It kind of feels like as you age, your mind and memory just don't quite work like they used to. But is that really the case, or are there ways to improve memory? While the years creeping on can have an effect on some brain functionality, certain aspects of brain function and memory are not necessarily linked to getting older.
Remember when your mom used to hound you about boring things like "eating healthy" or "getting exercise," especially now that you're "an adult"? That stuff isn't just about physical health, but mental health too. Your brain relies on nourishment as much as your body does.
"When it comes to neurological health, people often consider it in terms of what to fix when things go wrong," Dr. Vernon Williams, M.D., a sports neurologist at the Center for Sports Neurology & Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, tells Bustle. "But the truth is that you can and should make enhanced brain health a focus in your life."
There are certain tricks you can use to better train your memory, in addition to making sure your brain is in tip-top shape. So if you're ready to improve your memory, here are 10 steps to get you started.
1. Balance Your Diet
Nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants will help stimulate the production of new brain cells, while foods with higher levels of saturated fat and processed sugars can actually increase risk of dementia and hinder memory and concentration.
"Following a Mediterranean diet can have positive effects on the health of our brains, especially as we age," Williams tells Bustle. The Mediterranean diet involves a lot of fruit, veg, nuts, olive oil, and cereal grains. This diet improves your brain volume as you age, which can affect learning and memory.
For omega-3 fatty acids, try foods like salmon, tuna, sardines, spinach, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds. Eat colorful veggies like broccoli and kale, and get antioxidants from tea and wine in moderation.
2. Get Enough Exercise
Your brain can be developed just like your muscles can — with exercise. "Regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%," Dr. Verna R. Porter, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center, tells Bustle.
When you exercise, nerve cells are stimulated to multiply, which strengthens their interconnections. "Exercise may slow existing cognitive deterioration by stabilizing older brain connections," Porter says. Proper exercising can reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, which can lead to memory loss.
3. Get Enough Sleep
There's a reason your professors always told you to get a good night's sleep before an exam. Sleep can strengthen your retention of new information because your brain goes through a sort of review process during this time. Your brain is able to forge connections while you sleep, helping cement memories.
"Research studies have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid depositions in the brain," Porter says. "Beta-amyloid is a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer's and is essentially a sticky brain-clogging protein that interferes with brain function and with sleep."
4. Don't Try To Multitask
As it turns out, the brain doesn't like to do two things at once. Instead, it switches focus from one thing to the other, which is why it is difficult to read a book and hold a conversation at the same time. If you're not trying to perform two tasks simultaneously, you can apply more time and focus to one thing at a time, and therefore better remember what it is you're doing or learning.
5. Balance Your Stress
Chronic stress, depression, and anxiety can all lead to reduced memory function and even the destruction of brain cells if left untreated for too long. "Chronic or persistent stress can actually lead to nerve cell decline and even death, which may manifest as atrophy (shrinkage in size) of important memory areas in the brain," Porter says.
A couple of things you can do to counteract these effects to laugh and meditate when possible. Laughter engages multiple regions of the brain while simultaneously reducing stress. "Studies have shown that regular meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may diminish the damaging effects of stress on the brain," Porter says. And of course, if it's available to you, talk therapy can be a significant source of support.
6. Play Brain Games & Learn New Things
If you don't challenge your brain with new information, you could lose cognitive abilities that you previously had. This is because there are pathways forged in your brain for different types of problems and tasks, and just like a garden, you need to tend to those pathways to help them grow.
"Any worthwhile brain exercise is going to have the following components," Williams says. "It involves something you haven’t learned before; it's not easy; it develops a skill that can be built on; and it pays off." Whether it's learning a new language or challenging yourself with Sudoku, make sure you put in the work.
7. Use Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonic devices are tools you can implement to help remember information. There are a few different types.
- Acronyms: Make a word that is made up of the first letter of each thing you need to remember. For example, "HOMES" is an acronym for the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Eerie, Superior).
- Acrostics: Make a sentence where the first letter of each word corresponds to the thing you need to remember. For example, "Mary's Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights Praying" is an acrostic for the order of the planets.
- Chunking: Chunking is what we all already use to remember telephone numbers. Instead of just remembering seven to 10 numbers, we break them up into two or three sets of numbers. This makes the entire sequence easier to remember.
- Memory Palace: Associate a visual image with each thing you want to remember. The more vivid or shocking you can make the image, generally the easier it is to remember. If you want to remember a particular order, say the order of a shuffled deck of cards, you can place these images on a path that you might travel in your mind's eye.
- Rhymes: Create a brief rhyme to more easily remember a set of information such as the ever-popular rhyme to help avoid a hangover: "Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, in the clear."
8. Engage Multiple Senses
Another trick to help your memory is to incorporate multiple senses. While it can be helpful to remember how something felt, sounded, or even tasted in addition to how it looked, the strongest sensation related to memory is smell. This is why you might have a flooding of memories or emotions when you're reintroduced to a perfume you used to wear in high school, for example. Try to be conscious of how your kitchen smelled, say, when you put down your keys; it could help you pick them back up later.
9. Make It Relatable
You'll also be able to better remember information if you can relate it to something you already know. If you have trouble remembering new birthdays, for example, relate the new dates to ones you already know; if your new friend's birthday is Oct. 15, remember it as a month and a day before your dad's birthday.
10. Write It Down
Research shows that physically writing down new information can help reinforce it in your mind. If you keep a day planner and write down appointments and to-dos, chances are you'll better remember those things without actually having to reference your agenda.
Dr. Verna Porter, M.D.
Dr. Vernon Williams, M.D.
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