Scientists can now detect these memory lapses even in young and middle-aged brains. But there’s no reason to give up hope. We all have considerable control over our own brain aging and the memory slips that accompany it.
Have you ever recognized someone’s face but been unable to remember their name? Do you sometimes forget where you put your phone or keys? You are not alone – people of all ages complain about these kinds of memory issues, which only escalate as our brains age. Scientists can now detect these memory lapses even in young and middle-aged brains. But there’s no reason to give up hope. We all have considerable control over our own brain aging and the memory slips that accompany it. In 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, we describe the latest science that shows what all of us can do to reverse this aging process quickly and begin enjoying the benefits of a younger brain – one that thinks fast, learns effectively, and remembers well. The following are my top 10 strategies for keeping your brain young:
Engaging in regular physical exercise is perhaps the most important strategy for keeping our brains young. Scientists at the University of Illinois studied the brain and memory effects of regular aerobic conditioning and showed that brisk walkers have bigger and better functioning brains than those who don’t do any cardiovascular conditioning. One study showed that walking briskly 90 minutes each week lowers the risk for developing dementia. During exercise, the heart pumps oxygen and nutrients to the brain, and the body produces brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates better brain cell communication. Also, keep in mind that strength training offers brain benefits above and beyond those resulting from aerobic conditioning.
Stress is an inevitable aspect of life, but how we handle it makes a difference to our brain health. Research indicates that chronic stress has a negative impact on both brain function and memory performance. When people feel stressed out, they get distracted and have trouble focusing attention and learning new information. Recent studies indicate that relaxation exercises can help fight off the potential negative brain effects of stress – exercises like tai chi, yoga, and meditation have been shown to lift mood and bolster cognitive abilities.
Being overweight doubles your risk for developing dementia, and obese people have a four-fold greater risk. However, recent research indicates that losing weight can improve memory abilities in obese individuals. In addition to calorie control, a diet that emphasizes omega-3 fats from fish, nuts or flaxseed while minimizing omega-6 fats from red meats and whole milk products is essential for better brain health. Most people do not consume the recommended five daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables that protect brain cells from age-associated oxidative stress. Avoiding processed foods and refined sugars will further strengthen cognitive abilities.
Take Care of Your Health
Because physical illnesses can affect memory ability, it’s important to care for your health needs in order to optimize your brain health. Your doctor should review with you any medicines you may be taking – both prescription and over-the-counter – and determine whether reducing the doses or eliminating particular medicines might improve your cognitive abilities. For people with high blood pressure or cholesterol, taking medicines to treat these conditions also protects the brain.
Stimulate Your Mind
Taking courses, playing games, doing crossword puzzles, having stimulating conversations, and engaging in any form of mental stimulation is associated with better memory abilities as we age. Our computers and smartphones can distract us and worsen memory performance, but recent studies indicate that some computer games actually improve certain forms of mental performance. Games such as IQ Boost that train short-term memory have also been shown to boost fluid intelligence, or our ability to solve problems. The computer game NeuroRacer has been shown to improve multi-tasking skills in both older and younger adults.
Learn Simple Memory Strategies
Whether you’re in your twenties, your forties or your sixties, you can bolster your memory ability with focus and frame, the basic memory strategy from my new book, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain. The first step, focus, is a reminder to pay conscious attention to what you want to remember and then create a mental image of it. To practice this skill, concentrate on observing details and turn off any distracting devices. Once your mind has focused on the new information you want to remember and created a mental image of it, you then frame that image so it becomes memorable. The idea is to mentally place a picture frame around the image that you are focusing on so you are better able to recall it later. This method is effective for the most common memory issues people experience: remembering names, finding lost objects; recalling plans; and overcoming tip-of-the tongue memory lapses.
Remember Names and Faces
Use visual images to associate names and faces. If you’re meeting Harry, noticing his full head of hair will help you recall his name later. If you’re introduced to Lisa who has a subtle smile, imagining her as the Mona Lisa will help you remember her name. With new acquaintances, it’s helpful to repeat their name during your first conversation as well as imagine someone else (a friend or celebrity) who has the same name.
Never Lose Your Keys Again
The most effective strategy is to create memory places for keys, glasses, and other often misplaced items by putting them in the same place every day. If you don’t have a regular memory place nearby, make sure you focus your attention on where you put down an item and use a visual image to help fix it in your memory. This method works for remembering the location of several things – If I park my car on level 2B at the mall, I imagine William Shakespeare reciting “To be or not to be.”
Create Memory Habits
This is the best way to avoid forgetting appointments and plans, which neuropsychologists call prospective memory. Try developing a memory habit of reviewing your calendar each morning before you leave the house. Take a minute to think about the details of each of your appointments or plans for the day to ensure that you don’t leave anything behind.
Overcome Tip-of-the-Tongue Memory Lapses
Often people complain that they know what they want to remember, it’s on the tip of their tongue, but it just won’t come to mind. Getting anxious and struggling to remember at the moment often makes it worse. Instead, try jotting down your associations to the word, title, or phrase and look up the answer later. Then use focus and frame to link your associations to what you couldn’t remember in order to avoid the same memory lapse in the future.