Make your fuzzy memory a non-issue with these 8 tricks to sharpen your brain and keep it fit for life
Misplacing your car keys, going blank on the name of a colleague’s wife, and spacing on why you walked into a room can set you into a panic—is your memory already fading? Could it be early-onset Alzheimer's?
Chill. Cognitive loss is inevitable as you age, but according to a 10-year study of 10,000 adults published in the British Medical Journal, for most people it won’t start until around age 45. Yes, a few reports have said the slow decline starts as early as 27, but other research shows your mind is still growing at that time. “Development of the frontal lobe, which controls complex reasoning, continues for some people into their 20s or even late 30s,” says Gary Small, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and author of iBrain. “Plus there's a protective coating around long ‘wires’ connecting brain cells that peaks around age 39, so signals traveling along these wires get faster.”
The reason for your mind fumbles is likely very simple. “Most short-term memory loss is stress-related,” says Carolyn Brockington, M.D., director of the Stroke Program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. “We're all running around doing a million things, and although many people think they can multitask well, the brain sometimes has trouble moving from one thing to another and back again.” The problem isn’t your memory or even the multitasking; it’s that you need to concentrate more and make a conscious memory of things that you'll want to recall later, like that you left your keys on a hook by the door.
If your forgetfulness starts to disrupt your daily functions, such as accomplishing your work or taking care of your family, then you might have a problem that you shouldn't ignore. “There are a variety of medical conditions that can affect your memory, such as thyroid disease, vitamin deficiencies, and anemia,” Brockington says. If you think your situation is more than stress, keep a list of the instances when and where your memory failed you, and when you have five or more examples, talk to your doctor. She can help address any underlying conditions and possibly reverse the memory damage, and determine if you need further neuro-psychological testing.
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Otherwise, focus on your health. “What you do to your body when you're young affects your brain,” Small says. “Anxiety, depression, drug abuse, unhealthy diet, inactivity, poor sleep, and other external factors can all influence your memory in the long run.” For even more protection against premature senior moments, adopt the following simple mental tricks to keep your internal hard drive operating at max optimization.
1. Get your heart pumping. You can build brainpower the same way you build flat abs. Eating right and exercising for at least 30 minutes five days a week are key to keeping your head strong and healthy, says Peter Pressman, M.D., a neurology fellow at the Memory and Aging Center of the University of California, San Francisco. “If you exercise and get your heart rate above 60 percent your maximum, you may improve your cognitive reserve—your backup of healthy brain cells—which may help fend off disease in the long run,” he says. Working out releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that’s crucial for maintaining healthy neurons and creating new ones that ultimately helps ward off diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's.
2. Memorize “The Monster.” Exposing your mind to anything new means you’re learning, which is key for a healthy brain, says Vonda Wright, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and author of Guide to Thrive. So try to learn the lyrics to this new hit from Eminem and Rihanna, or if you are a hip-hop fan, choose a song outside of your favorite genre. The more difficult it is to master, the tastier and more powerful the brain candy.
3. Hit the “delete” button. Your brain is being overloaded with more information than ever—the news, work, bills, passwords—and you're not pressing the mental “delete” button often enough, making it challenging at times to create room for incoming data. Take a load off by making several lists. “Separating what you have to do into small manageable lists really helps relieve some stress from having to keep track of it all, which clogs up your brain,” Wright says.
She suggests breaking things down into what you can finish in five minutes, 20 minutes, and 1 hour—that way when you have 20 minutes to spare, you can check that list and cross an item off. Once you have everything in black and white, fuhgettaboutit. Really, try to “delete” those things or file them away in a mental “folder” and just remember that you need to accomplish the items on your lists—you’ll get to them when the time is right, and if something’s not on the list, it’s not important enough to worry about (so don’t!).
4. Snooze longer. You’ve heard that sleeping 12 hours on Saturday won't make up for the fact that you got five hours most nights of the week—and if you’re still ignoring this, perhaps this will convince you to aim for more consistent bedtimes: “Sleep is not just important for renewal of physiological health but also for psychological health,” Brockington says. “How it affects the brain is unclear, but we know if you don't maintain a regular sleep schedule, there is a cumulative effect and it will start to affect to your memory.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, creating a sleep debt of just an hour a day can impact your performance, ability to process information, and mood. Poor dozing has also been linked to increased inflammation, which can lead to memory loss. Rather than cut into your precious slumber to wake up an hour early to work on an important presentation, hit snooze for those 60 minutes and rise feeling more rested, energized, and better able to think clearer and make good decisions, Brockington says.
5. Unplug from your devices. Your memory is like a Groupon—use it or lose it. So while it’s convenient to never have to memorize phone numbers or the route to your dentist anymore, those shortcuts are short-circuiting your noggin’s power, Brockington says. Fight back by weaning yourself off technology a bit. Try keeping your phone in your purse when out with friends, commit to memory at least five key phone numbers—such as your best friend's, boyfriend's, boss's, brother’s, and therapist’s—and start relying on your GPS or Google Maps less often. Sure, you may wind up in the wrong place, but that means you may also stumble upon some amazing dive bar that’s not even on Yelp.
6. Listen to Tolstoy. “Brain scans show that if you hear, write, or say a word, different areas of the brain are stimulated,” Small says. And like a two-year-old, your brain craves stimulation—and lots of it. To keep the variety coming, consider listening to books with a free app like Audible while you drive to work, cook dinner, clean, or grocery shop. Whether you pick Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or challenge yourself to listen to a classic literary work such as Anna Karenina or War and Peace, you’ll make a ho-hum task more fun and prevent brain boredom too.
7. Wise up. The number of times your mom has called asking how to take a photo with her phone is proof that age takes a toll on your mental skills. Yet the people who gave you life still have a few things up on you. Time and experience have given them wisdom and empathy that will take you a lifetime to achieve, reports a 2013 study in Psychology and Aging. So when Mom speaks up, take notes.
8. Swap FaceTime for face time. One-on-one interaction with a human being—and not via a screen—is like investing in a personal trainer for your brain. “Talking with people and having a back-and-forth is a mental workout,” Small says. “You have to read cues, like intonations and pauses, and think of an appropriate response while simultaneously monitoring your companion’s response, all of which fire up neural cells.”