How to Protect and Improve Your Memory
Occasional memory lapses—what you ate for dinner last night or where you parked your car at the mall—are normal and not a symptom of a memory disorder.
It’s only when those lapses occur regularly or when they involve significant information that they’re cause for concern.
If your forgetfulness is increasing, it’s helpful to know if you have a serious problem and what you can do about it.
“If you’re worried about your memory, most likely your lapses are on track with so-called norms of memory decline that most people become aware of in their 50s or so,” says Aaron P. Nelson, Ph.D., M.D., a psychologist and neuropsychology expert in Boston and author of Achieving Optimal Memory. “The truth is, most people who have memory disorders or Alzheimer’s aren’t self-aware enough to notice their memory is declining.”
Dr. Nelson offers the following ideas for those of us with nothing more than memory slips.
Protect your mind
Like your body, your brain does better when you take good care of it. You can do this by exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating a low-fat diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. You should also avoid tobacco, illegal drugs, and too much alcohol, all of which affect memory.
“Basically, you can duplicate everything you know about how to keep your heart healthy and apply it to keeping your brain healthy,” Dr. Nelson says. “That’s because the nutrients and oxygen your brain requires to function originate in the heart.”
Although studies have shown an association between living a healthy lifestyle and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren’t sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.
Be a lifelong learner
Reading a lot, learning new things, and staying curious about the world help maintain mental sharpness.
“The key is to devote time and energy to something you’re passionately interested in—such as music, politics, the environment—because it gives your life a sense of purpose and your mind new avenues to pursue,” Dr. Nelson says. “In turn, this creates new neural pathways that increase what we call your ‘cognitive reserve’—or stored brainpower.”
Severe stress affects concentration and attention, which in turn affect memory.
Although you can’t eliminate stress, you can take steps to relieve its effects. Take part in activities that help you relax, such as aerobic exercise or talking with friends or family. These can lessen the negative effects of stress.
Aid your memory
Some people confuse disorganization with a bad memory. They can become better organized and less forgetful by creating a system for handling different types of information easily and routinely.
“Using an Outlook program, PDA, pocket calendar, or another device in which you schedule appointments, store phone numbers, and keep track of other routine information can help,” Dr. Nelson says.
They will allow you to free your brain from having to remember details, so you can use it for more creative and productive purposes.
“Memory declines with age because the brain processes information more slowly,” Dr. Nelson says. “However, just because it takes you longer to absorb something doesn’t mean you won’t get it. Be tenacious; perseverance helps keep the mind sharp.”