Seven tips to im­prove your mem­ory

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - Nic Flem­ing

1 Sleep on it

Sleep­ing well helps re­in­force episodic mem­o­ries – those as­so­ci­ated with time and place. There is also sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence that REM sleep plays a vi­tal role in the con­sol­i­da­tion of mem­o­ries re­lat­ing to learn­ing mo­tor skills, such as learn­ing to play a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment or ride a bike. Hav­ing a full night’s sleep soon af­ter gain­ing a new skill helps con­sol­i­date the pro­cesses in­volved so they can later be per­formed “on au­topi­lot”.

2 Con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion

Older peo­ple are of­ten told to adopt a “use-it-or-lose-it” ap­proach to main­tain­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion. In fact, when it comes to mem­ory, re­search sug­gests that only cer­tain types of men­tal ac­tiv­i­ties help. In a 2013 study, US re­searchers found par­tic­i­pants aged 60-90 who spent 15 hours a week for three months learn­ing a com­plex skill, such as dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, saw sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in episodic mem­ory tests. This was not the case for those who did more fa­mil­iar, less de­mand­ing, tasks such as cross­words.

3 Chill out

Stress af­fects mem­ory in dif­fer­ent ways de­pend­ing on when the stress­ful event oc­curs. The rapid release of adren­a­line as part of our “fight-or-flight” re­sponse can make us more at­ten­tive, but the slower release of cor­ti­sol dis­rupts mem­ory-form­ing pro­cesses. A stress­ful event that oc­curs well be­fore ef­forts to form mem­o­ries can im­pair re­call, whereas one shortly be­fore or af­ter the learn­ing of new in­for­ma­tion can en­hance it. And get­ting stressed out just be­fore ef­forts to re­trieve mem­o­ries im­pairs our abil­ity to do so. Yoga, med­i­ta­tion or other re­lax­ation tech­niques may help.

4 Be­lieve to re­mem­ber

Pos­i­tive think­ing ap­pears to boost mem­ory per­for­mance – re­searchers at Har­vard Univer­sity found they could im­prove the per­for­mance of peo­ple aged 60 and above in mem­ory tests by sub­lim­i­nally presenting them with pos­i­tive age-re­lated words such as “wise”, “sage” and “as­tute”. Prim­ing oth­ers with words such as “Alzheimer’s”, “for­gets” and “con­fused” un­der­mined their per­for­mance. Brain scans have shown dif­fer­ences in ac­tiv­ity lev­els in brain re­gions dur­ing mem­ory en­cod­ing, ac­cord­ing to whether or not in­di­vid­u­als be­lieve they have good re­call abil­i­ties or not.

5 Take a break

Mem­o­ries can be un­der­mined if the brain doesn’t have enough down­time to con­sol­i­date them. More than a cen­tury ago, Ger­man sci­en­tists showed that peo­ple per­formed al­most twice as well in mem­ory tests if they took breaks. More re­cently, neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown that some am­ne­sia pa­tients and healthy vol­un­teers are more able to re­tain lists of words if the task is fol­lowed by pe­ri­ods of quiet time.

6 Stay so­cial

Hav­ing an ac­tive so­cial life de­lays mem­ory loss as we age. US sci­en­tists who asked peo­ple in their 50s and 60s to do mem­ory tests ev­ery other year be­tween 1998 and 2004 found the de­cline in re­call abil­i­ties of their most so­cia­ble sub­jects to be half that of the least well-con­nected. Hav­ing good friends, vol­un­teer­ing for char­i­ties and other forms of so­cial en­gage­ment also pro­tect mem­ory.

7 Mem­ory menu

Health claims made for many “superfoods” need to be taken with a pinch of salt. What we eat does, how­ever, af­fects cog­ni­tive func­tion. A 2016 re­search re­view found Mediter­ranean-style di­ets to be linked to slower rates of cog­ni­tive de­cline, Alzheimer’s dis­ease and im­proved long-term work­ing mem­ory. So stock up on plant-based foods, cut back on red meat and dairy – and use olive oil as your main source of fat.

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