Twelve Steps to Enhance and Preserve Your Memory
One of the most worrisome aspects of the aging process is loss of memory. Many people can handle the idea of losing some of their physical capacity, but are absolutely horrified about their memory fading. The goal of this article is to provide you with some simple tips that you can use to sharpen your memory and preserve your brain from cognitive decline. Whether you are twenty or eighty, these tips can help you stay at the top of your game!
Step One: Drink Alcohol in Moderation
Although heavy drinking can have a negative affect upon your memory, numerous studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption can have a beneficial affect upon your memory and cognitive function. This may seem surprising at first, but alcohol does have some anti-oxidant effects when used conscientiously, and this has been shown to benefit brain health.
Be careful not to abuse alcohol though. Alcohol abuse has a clear negative impact on your brain, leading to immediate (albeit temporary) cognitive impairment. Long term alcohol abuse can also impact the connections your neurons make with one another in your brain, preventing you from making memories and connections as easily.
But if you are smart with your drinking and can maintain moderate habits, there is ample evidence that light alcohol consumption can actually increase your cognitive ability. There are some studies that have been released recently that show that moderate drinkers outscore both hard drinkers and non-drinkers in certain clinical tests of cognition and memory.
Alcohol can also even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. In one study conducted in France, researchers found that two daily glasses of wine reduced the risk of Alzheimer's by 45%!
Step Two: If You Are Suffering from Depression: Seek Help
Anything in your life that leads to chronic feelings of anger or anxiety can have a negative impact on your memory. Your brain only has so many resources to allocate, and if your brain is fixated on feelings of anxiety and depression, it is pulling resources away from your memory. Depression is the number one psychiatric condition that can eat at your memory and cognitive ability.
In many cases, the root cause of your memory issues can actually be the depression itself. One of the biggest symptoms of Depression is a breakdown in your ability to concentrate. The negative feelings that your consciousness generates removes your ability to concentrate on tasks which are actually important to you, or important to your life. Depression can keep you from holding onto thoughts, and can prevent you from being successful in school or at work because it drains your focus.
One of the reasons why Depression causes these cognitive lapses is because Depression significantly increases cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Elevated cortisol levels enhance your your brain's fight or flight response and have a negative impact upon your higher level brain functions.
Depression has also been correlated with a decrease in the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the central area of the brain in regard to short-term memory, so Depression can literally diminish your ability to store new memories. One study in particular showed that significant depression can decrease the size of the hippocampus by as much as fifteen percent.
The condition of depression also has an impact on the forms of memories that you can retain. Individuals with a predisposition toward depression are more likely to retain negative memories than positive memories, not because of any conscious effort on their part, but because their brains are just wired to do so.
Not all hope is lost, however. Studies have shown that medications that have been proven to combat depression, like SSRIs, have the capability to also restore the normal function of the hippocampus, as well as restore its size.
Step Three: Stay Active
Although historically, philosophers and scientists have thought of the mind and the body as two different entities, it is now crystal clear that the health of the body and the health of the mind are interconnected. Physical activity has the capability to kick-start the brain and increase your capacity to retain memories.
Obesity, for example, has a chronic and negative impact on the brain, and can even increase the risk of both Alzheimer's disease and stroke. Exercise is one way that the body takes care of plaque in the blood vessels and arteries, and if you remain excessively sedentary, the heart loses its ability to pump blood effectively, due to a combination of built-up plaque and lack of stimulation. We all know that this plaque build-up increases the risk of heart attack significantly, but did you know that these same issues with cardiovascular health can reduce the efficiency of your memory and cognition?
The brain needs more fresh nutrients and oxygen than any other organ of the body, and if cardiovascular conditions limit the amount of fresh, oxygenated blood that reaches your brain, then the brain will not be able to function at optimal capacity. You don't have to exercise five days a week to improve your cognitive health, however. Just try to regularly do things that get your heart pumping a little bit. Start jogging occasionally, or even just walk or do some laps up and down the stairs. Study after study has shown that the more active a person is, the more it benefits their cognitive health.
Step Four: Association and Visualization
One way to increase the effectiveness of your memory on a day to day basis is to engage in visualization. This means that, when you have something important that you know you need to remember, associate the memory with vivid imagery and use your imagination. By engaging in the creative part of your brain, you increase the likelihood that you will store the memory more effectively.
Try to actively make memories, and not passively expect yourself to store the memories. When someone tells you something important, don't just tell yourself you will remember it later, actively make the memory in your own mind. Dwell on it, and dwell on the implication of the memory.
You can also effectively use word association in order to more effectively remember important (and not-so-important) details, obligations, and memories. Associate what you are trying to remember with some other memory that you already have stored, so that when you think of one memory, it instantly recalls the other thing that you are trying to remember.
By creating emphasis in your own mind with visualization and association, you enhance or reinforce the thing that you are trying to remember, improving your overall memory, and practice good memory habits which will help you in the future.
Step Five: Pay Attention
This may seem simple and obvious enough, but this is actually one of the toughest aspects of memory for many people. Research has shown that it takes time to convert a short-term memory to a long-term memory. The average amount of time it takes to store a long-term memory is eight seconds. No matter how badly you want to remember something, you will have trouble keeping it if you do not hold it in your mind for at least eight seconds.
It's also important to do things deliberately if you intend on remembering them. Too often, we do things offhand, and put too much faith in our memory. Do you ever forget where you put your keys? Or your wallet? These sorts of mistakes happen because we simply toss things aside without actually engaging our brains to ensure that we know where they are later when we need them.
In situations where you know what you are experiencing is or might be very important in the future, reduce the distractions in your mind and take stock of what really matters. Put your phone away, take your mind off the television, and engage.
Step Six: Repetition
One useful way to store memories more effectively is to utilize repetition. When you meet someone for the first time, repeat their name back to them both when you are first introduced and when you depart. You can use repetition for common lapses in memory as well. Whenever you do something like put your keys away, remind yourself immediately where you placed them. This may sound weird, but by actively engaging your brain when you perform an action, you all but ensure that you will remember them later.
This can happen with names as well. Always take the time to mentally check yourself whenever you meet a new person. It can be easy to forget the name of someone that you like and get a long with because you spent so much time thinking about the conversation and the social cues that you forgot to remember his or her name. This happens more often than you'd think, and it's embarrassing!
Step Seven: Chunking
Chunking is one of the most effective ways to store complex memories. Our brains only have a limited ability to store a certain amount of items at a time. For example, our brains only really have the capability to remember an average of seven numbers in sequence. This is one reason why credit card numbers are sixteen digits and social security numbers are nine digits: They are longer than most people's brains are equipped to handle.
One way to remember long numbers or other forms of information in through the technique known as chunking. Chunking is when you convert simple information into slightly more complex relational information. Essentially, you are turning two small memories into one larger memory in which the relationship between the two items enhances your storage capacity.
With numbers, for example, it may be difficult to remember a phone number, especially if it is from an area code you are unfamiliar with. Say the number is (256) 998-2356. With this number, you can combine the ten digits into three distinct memories. You can remember that 256 is the number of bits in a byte, 998 is two less than 1000, and that the last four digits are 23456 without the four.
You can also use this strategy to remember things other than numbers. Say, if you have to remember a group of people's names, you can associate them with each other based off of the first letters of their name, or group them together by where you met them. You can also use this to commit your grocery list to memory. Rather than think about everything you need as soon as you go in, categorize your needs, and remember small groups of items as you enter different sections of the store.
Step Eight: Method of Loci
Another effective means to enhance your memory is to remember things by associating them with their location when you last saw them. One of the most obvious examples of this occurs in the way that teachers remember their students names. Over time, all of the students tend to settle into a preferred seating arrangement, and the teacher can remember a persons name more effectively when they stay in the same spot week in and week out. When someone is absent, they simply have to reconnect the empty seat with the person that is normally seating in the seat.
This also works well with remembering directions and the location of certain destinations. Some people remember most effectively by following street names and addresses, while others find their way around the world primarily by utilizing landmarks. Landmark navigation is an explicit form of using the Method of Loci for memory. Simply by seeing an object or intermediate location, you can remember where to go next by associating the step of the direction with the location where the turn is made.
Step Nine: Take Time to Take it Easy
Although your brain thrives on activity, it is also possible to overwork your mind at the same time. In order to prevent mental burnout, allocate time every day to things and people that you enjoy. Just like your body, your brain needs time to wind down and recover from activity in order to maintain optimal function.
Being overworked or suffering from excessive anxiety can reduce your focus and prevent you from keeping your mind in tip-top shape. As we mentioned earlier, your body and brain only have so much energy, and if you work yourself ragged or have a habit of letting your mind run around in circles inside your head, you are going to be too exhausted to keep your memory strong.
It doesn't matter how you do it. You can exercise. You can do meditate. You can go hang out with your friends. Just regularly arrange for time for your mind to unwind.
Step Ten: Sleep to Enhance your Memory
Sleep is perhaps the most important time of the day for your memory. Even though your brain is busy gathering new memories during the day, it is at night when your body cements those memories that you have prepared for long term storage. When you sleep, your brain goes through a process known as memory consolidation.
Optimal memory consolidation is dependent upon healthy and deep sleep, and when you commit yourself to an abridged sleep schedule, or you toss and turn at night, you prevent your brain from optimally storing the memories that you have formed. This can affect all aspects of your life. Poor sleep can cause you to struggle in exams and it can keep you from functioning at your peak while you are at work. It can also prevent you from storing memories in your personal life, and it can drain you of the mental energy you need to remember the little things, like birthdays and anniversaries.
Step Eleven: Eat Well to Improve your Memory
Like we mentioned earlier, your brain functions at its best when it has all the fuel that it needs to function. Exercise helps circulate blood to the brain, and proper diet ensures that that blood is full of nutrients that your brain can use for optimization.
There are a number of foods in particular that have an impact on memory and cognition:
Omega-3s – Studies have shown that Omega-3s have a significant impact on cognitive function. These nutrients are found in high concentrations in fish, including sardines, halibut, tuna, and salmon. Foods such as flaxseed, spinach, walnuts, and pinto beans have a lot of Omega-3s as well.
Fruits and Veggies – Vegetables are great because they pack lots of nutrition in a small amount of calories. Most fruits and vegetables are very good for you because they are loaded with antioxidants which eliminate free radicals from your brain and help streamline its normal, healthy function. The best foods for your brain tend to be vegetables that are a deep and dark green, and fruits and veggies that are very vibrant in color like bell peppers, tomatoes, and watermelon.
Green Tea – Green Tea is loaded with a particular anti-oxidants known as polyphenols. There is evidence that Green Tea can enhance both memory and cognition, while also supplying some useful Anti-Aging Benefits as well.
Wine and Grape Juice – These beverages, as well as beverages made from other dark fruits, such as blackberries or cranberries, are high in Resveratrol, a phytonutrient which has both been linked to improved blood flow as well as a reduced risk of Alzheimer's Disease.
Control Saturated Fat and Calorie Consumption – A poor diet which breaks down the health of the cardiovascular system will have both immediate and long-term effects upon the health and function of the brain. Diets full of saturated fat and calories have been linked both to reduced cognitive function and an increased risk of dementia. Avoiding bad foods is just as important as consuming healthy foods when it comes to the health of your brain.
Step Twelve: Practice, Practice, Practice
In order to preserve your memory and your cognitive ability, the best thing you can possibly do is exercise your faculties as much as possible. This is a major issue both once people graduate from school and when they retire. You are so used to exercising your brain in a particular way regularly, that when you are no longer obligated to do so, you start to let your brain off the hook.
This is one reason why so many people seem to lose their edge when they retire. They don't have the outside motivation prodding them to keep their mind active. Its the same with physical exercise. How many professional athletes or college athletes have you seen go completely soft as soon as they aren't working out for their career? This is what happens to your brain when you suddenly have significantly less responsibility in your life, and you don't make the effort to keep your memory strong.
In order to stay as sharp as possible, make sure you find activities that can keep your brain hard at work on a daily basis. Volunteer, tutor, or find social groups that encourage you to think on your feet. Make your memory a game, and keep your brain working each and every day. By making an active and conscious effort to preserve your mental sharpness, you will keep your mind younger and more active!