Although lapses in memory are associated with growing older, almost anyone can benefit from memory-boosting tactics. Here are some general strategies, followed by some ways you can zero in on one particularly important memory skill: keeping track of names.
Surprisingly, one of the best first steps is to pick up your walking shoes. A person who is physically fit, has low cholesterol, and is eating and sleeping well is more likely to have improved circulation to the brain, says Dr. Steven Lamm, author of Younger at Last: The New World of Vitality Medicine (Pocket Books, 1998). This results in a greater supply of acetylcholine, which leads to a sharper memory.
Conversely, poor nutrition, excessive drug and alcohol use, sleep deprivation, and excessive stress can reduce blood flow to the brain, reducing the supply of acetylcholine and negatively impacting memory.
Six Memory Helpers
While maintaining good general health is the best way to maintain a good memory, these six specific strategies can help -- no matter what your age.
Pay attention. Sometimes people think that their memory is failing when the real issue is more an inability to concentrate. To fight this, try making a conscious effort to attend to what is being said or shown.
Get organized. "People who are well-organized have better memories than those who lead cluttered lives. People whose lives are cluttered with physical objects have cluttered minds," says Fred Chernow, a memory researcher and author of The Sharper Mind (Prentice Hall, 1997).
"Whether it's your car keys or your glasses, put the object in the same place every day," advises Margie Lachman, a psychology professor at Brandeis University. "Once you learn the location and use it regularly, then you are not going to forget it."
Use memory aids. Don't be afraid to write everything down. Good note-taking will always out-perform the best memory. Make lists and use an appointment book and calendars. The calendar functions not only as a reminder of future events, but as a retrospective memory aid. During the day, make brief notes on people you've met and tasks you want to accomplish.
Make association a habit. "Memories are formed by making connections with other memories," says Suzanne Craft, a neuropsychologist and psychiatry professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "The more you connect new information with what you already know, the more likely you'll be to remember it. The more effort you spend on working with the new information, the more likely you are to retain it." Also, try being more observant. People who notice more, such as someone's eye or hair color, tend to remember more.
Actively acquire information. If you have difficulty retaining new information when reading, underline the important points. "Underlining makes you read the information a second time and is an incredibly effective way of encoding information," says Craft. Go a step further and paraphrase what you've just read in your own words. Similarly, it's frustrating to enjoy a movie but not be able to remember any details later on. Surmount this hurdle by reviewing the events in sequence right after the show is over. Better yet, says Lachman, "As soon as it's over, talk about it or make a few notes. The more you organize your thoughts and elaborate on the details, the better you'll remember it."
Just picture it. Andrew Dubin, an education professor at San Francisco State University and co-author of How to Remember Anything (Arco Books), teaches a process of visual memory called the mnemonic approach, after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory. The technique relies on visual recall and involves tapping into your visual memory by taking the time to consciously create a picture in your mind. If you are at a friend's house and you don't want to forget your umbrella, Dubin says, associate leaving with the door. Then associate the door with your umbrella. Instead of seeing the door, visually replace it with your umbrella. "By taking a moment to say, 'I want to remember this,' and creating an image of that information, you force your mind to make a special print."
Insufficient blood circulation is a common cause of memory problems. The herb Ginkgo biloba has been touted as a memory booster because it may increase blood flow to the brain. While studies have shown promising evidence of this, experts agree the jury is still out. Many of the studies done so far have been only on elderly people with dementia. Check with your doctor before you start taking any herbal remedy.