Did I ever mail that letter? Where did I park the car? What’s our new neighbor’s name again?
What causes this frustratingly frequent forgetfulness? What leads to memory loss as we age? “Over time, we lose brain cells. The connection between the surviving brain cells then becomes weaker, and the chemicals that send messages within the brain become less efficient,” explains Thomas Crook, Ph.D., author of The Memory Advantage.
The silver lining on this cloud of forgetfulness is that not all types of memory decline with age. The memory that governs physical skill – procedural or muscle memory – stays relatively consistent throughout life. In many cases, it truly is “like riding a bike.” Plus, higher-level brain functions, such as judgment and wisdom, often grow stronger with age. So, as time passes, we might actually be better equipped to solve the problems of the world. Now, if we could just remember where we put our car keys.
It’s natural to experience some basic forgetfulness from time to time. But to maintain as much memory as possible, it’s important to take the same healthful approach with our mental health that we take with our physical well-being. A balanced diet, regular exercise, and overall self-care have as much of a positive effect on our minds as they do on our bodies. If we combine healthy lifestyle choices with memory-improving techniques, we can see “dramatic results in our memory function,” according to Gary Small, M.D., author of The Healthy Brain Kit.
Choosing to flex our mental muscle and train our brain today can affect how well it will function for us in the years to come. In addition to the classic crossword puzzle, read on to discover six smart ways to fight forgetfulness and to help maintain a magnificent memory.
Drop the Distractions
Research has shown that much of what we blame on fading memory as we age can actually be attributed to failing attention. This is not to say that we consciously pay less attention as we get older. According to neuroscientist Cheryl Grady, Ph.D., gradual physiological changes in the brain’s frontal lobes make it harder to maintain attention in the face of distraction. Of course, we can’t remember what we didn’t hear or pay attention to in the first place. Therefore, we need to make an extra effort to focus when we’re facing facts that we need to retain. Jotting down distracting thoughts before trying to absorb new information can clear our minds to focus on an influx of new material. It’s also a good idea to avoid multi-tasking when we’re learning something new. Focusing on the task at hand is far more memorable than making our minds juggle several things at once.
Eat a Brain-Boosting Diet
As we age, it becomes more difficult for our bodies to ward off the effects of inflammation and oxidation. Although both of these are natural processes in our bodies, when over-stimulated they are associated with many chronic conditions, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. They also contribute to impaired cognitive function. To keep our minds sharp, Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, strongly suggests eating foods that are known for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These include oily fish (salmon, sardines), fruits and vegetables, and olive oil. Research has also shown that foods rich in folic acid, including leafy greens like spinach, can protect your nervous system and help to maintain memory. Saturated fats, trans fats, partially hydrogenated oils, and refined carbohydrates and sugars, on the other hand, can be memory melters. In a 2002 study at UCLA, researchers found that rats given a diet high in saturated fat and refined sugar experienced spatial memory loss after just two months. For a healthy brain boost, we can trade a can of cola for a cup of green tea, and swap our side of fries for a spinach salad.
Let Go of Stress
Anxiety and long-term stress can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health – including our ability to store memories. When we’re under significant stress, high levels of the hormone cortisol are released from our adrenal gland. Cortisol is particularly toxic to neurons, and can destroy the hippocampus, the brain’s short-term memory center. So, although we may do our best thinking under pressure, we probably won’t have the sharpest short-term memory if we don’t release our stress. Calming activities like yoga or tai-chi - or less-structured but equally relaxing rituals like taking a bath or listening to music – can be an effective way to soothe our minds and enhance our memory.