How to Improve Your Memory (and Even Get a Little Smarter)
My mother forgets things.
Not everything of course, but a lot. She can still recall the names of her friends from high school for example, and she remembers every embarrassing thing we did as kids... but ask her what we talked about five minutes ago, and you're out of luck.
What's really crazy is that I can't tell you when it happened. In fact, from my perspective, it was almost overnight. It's as if her brilliant mind blew a fuse — one minute she was fine and then — POP — the next minute she wasn't.
And now my mother forgets things.
But we're not beaten yet.
From mental exercises to food, I've been doing a lot of research into what helps people improve their memories, boost their brain power, and even stave off dementia. So whether you just want to get better at remembering names or want to keep your brain healthy for years to come, follow these suggestions. (See also: 5 Tips for Remembering Names)
The idea of eating for your intellectual health is nothing new, but this new development with my mom caused me to take a second, harder look at which foods do what.
The brain, it turns out, is made up of fatty tissue, so it requires quite a bit of fatty acids to function properly...but not just any fats will do. The popular Omega-3s are a good start, boosting your brain power as well as your immune system (while providing a whole host of other health benefits), so eat plenty of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and shrimp), nuts (walnuts and almonds are wonderful), and leafy greens.
Supplements are good too — certainly better than nothing — but experts still agree that adjusting your diet is the best way to get the nutrients your body needs.
And speaking of leafy greens, the darker ones, such as spinach and chard, do a great job of controlling your homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a non-protein amino acid that in normal levels apparently causes no harm. But elevated levels have been associated with Alzheimer's Disease as well as cardiovascular disease and a few other serious health concerns. To control your homocysteine levels, you should eat plenty of the dark, leafy greens and take both folic acid and B-vitamin supplements. Incidentally, whole grains are a great source of B-vitamins and give you a healthy dose of magnesium too — an essential mineral that is crucial to living cells. Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, and yes, dementia.
Antioxidants also play a big part in your mental health, so think blueberries, garlic, olive oil, pomegranates, and those popular acai berries everyone is talking about. In general, the darker the fruit, the more potent the antioxidant properties, so eat from this food group as often as you like.
Cocoa power also contains a powerful antioxidant...more powerful than green tea even, so try sprinkling some on top of your coffee or mixing with your milk.
And since we're talking about coffee, having a few cups of java in the morning has actually been shown to be an effective deterrent against dementia and other cognitive diseases. And it's not just the caffeine — coffee apparently has some mystery compound in it, according to Science Daily Magazine, that interacts with the caffeine to protect against Alzheimer's. How much is enough? Studies show that moderate amounts — 4 to 5 cups a day — is sufficient to provide the health benefit.
And last but not least, that daily glass of red wine really does have its perks. In addition to helping ward off heart disease, red wine also contains some very powerful flavanoids that boost blood flow to the brain. Don't like red wine? Opt for grape juice instead.
Getting as little as 20 minutes of physical activity each day can help ward off Alzheimer's and other cognitive diseases. Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells and also increases your levels of BDNF, a chemical that encourages growth and survival of new neurons.
Exercise also improves the quality of your sleep, another must for those delicate neurons.
We've all heard the suggestions that exercising your brain is the easiest way to improve your mental power...and that little tidbit is actually true. But to get the most benefit, you need to engage in mental exercises that require your brain to work.
Learning a new language or a new musical instrument, for example, forces your brain to create new pathways and form new neurons. The result is improved mental capacity. Crossword puzzles and other brain games work equally well, but here's the catch...once you've mastered the task, it's no longer challenging, and your brain doesn't have to form those all-important neurons to keep up.
The key, then, is to keep your brain working by challenging yourself with new puzzles, activities, and areas of learning. The more you broaden your horizons, the better off your brain will be.
And in case you're wondering, yes — video games are beneficial too. In addition to increasing hand-eye coordination, those who play video games at least three to four hours a week have better depth perception, pattern recognition, and overall mental dexterity. You'll also find that you process information a little faster too.
Whether you're stepping out to the store or trying to remember the name of the person you just met, these quick tricks can help you remember information faster and easier.
Use Visual Cues
Linking an image to something you need to remember is an easy way to trigger that memory later when you need it. For example, my mother's license plate used to begin with PBJ. I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so I used that image to remember the number on her plates. And clearly it worked... that was some 15 years ago and I can still pull it up with no problem.
When I need a few things from the store, I try creating a word using the first letter of those items. For example, if I need milk, eggs, and tea, I might use the word "MET" to help me recall which items I need to buy. Obviously, sometimes the letters won't cooperate and try as you might, you just can't form an actual word. In those cases, improvise. I once remembered brisket, bread, cilantro, celery, and soda by memorizing BBCCS — as in BB's and CC's. The letters didn't have much meaning for me, but it was enough to help me remember what to buy.
Trying to remember three or four items at the grocery store is one thing...it's quite another when that list grows to 10 or 15. There's nothing wrong with making a list, and in fact, making those lists takes the pressure off of you to remember every little to-do or to-buy that might cross your path. Given the amount of information we process on a daily basis, that's probably a good thing.
Say It Out Loud
When meeting someone for the first time, say their name out loud as soon as you learn it. This helps reinforce the face (image) with the name (detail) for future recall. Incidentally, this little trick works equally well with non-human recall too, so feel free to employ this tactic anytime you need to remember a set of details or specifications.
Write It Down
If you read a chapter in a book, you can probably recite the overall gist of the content, but when you write it down, you'll find that your recall is much more detailed. This trick comes in quite handy when you're studying for a test, memorizing a speech, or just need to remember something important.
Obviously, there's no guarantee that you won't still forget things from time to time, and as of this writing, there's still no fool-proof cure for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. But we're getting there. And in the meantime, just think of how healthy and happy you'll be when you implement these new habits.