How to protect your memory
Neuroscientist’s latest book proposes simple tips to help you prevent decline
As we age, our memory declines. This is an ingrained assumption for many of us; however, according to neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, decline is not inevitable.
The author of more than 20 books on the mind, Restak has decades’ worth of experience in guiding patients with memory problems. “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind,” Restak’s latest book, includes tools such as mental exercises, sleep habits and diet that can help boost memory.
Yet, Restak ventures beyond this familiar territory, considering every facet of memory — how memory is connected to creative thinking, technology’s impact on memory, how memory shapes identity. “The point of the book is to overcome the everyday problems of memory,” Restak said.
Especially working memory, which falls between immediate recall and long-term memory, and is tied to intelligence, concentration and achievement. According to Restak, this is the most critical type of memory, and exercises to strengthen it should be practiced daily. But bolstering all memory skills, he added, is key to warding off later memory issues.
Memory decline is not inevitable with aging, Restak argues in the book. Instead, he points to 10 “sins,” or “stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories.” Seven were first described by psychologist and memory specialist Daniel Lawrence Schacter — “sins of omission,” such as absent-mindedness, and “sins of commission,” such as distorted memories.
To those, Restak added three of his own: technological distortion, technological distraction and depression.
Ultimately, “we are what we can remember,” he said. Here are some of Restak’s tips for developing and maintaining a healthy memory.
Pay more attention
Some memory lapses are actually attention problems, not memory problems. For instance, if you’ve forgotten the name of someone you met at a cocktail party, it could be because you were talking with several people at the time and you didn’t properly pay attention when you heard it.
“Inattention is the biggest cause for memory difficulties,” Restak said. “It means you didn’t properly encode the memory.”
One way to pay attention when you learn new information, such as a name, is to visualize the word. Having a picture associated with the word, Restak said, can improve recall. For instance, he recently had to memorize the name of a doctor, Dr. King (an easy example, he acknowledged). So he pictured a male doctor “in a white coat with a crown on his head and a scepter instead of a stethoscope in his hand.”
Find regular everyday memory challenges
There are many memory exercises that you can integrate into everyday life. Restak suggested composing a grocery list and memorizing it. When you get to the store, don’t automatically pull out your list (or your phone) — instead, pick up everything according to your memory.
“Try to see the items in your mind,” he said, and only consult the list at the end, if necessary. If you’re not going to the store, try memorizing a recipe. He added that frequent cooking is actually a great way to improve working memory.
Once in a while, get in the car without turning on your GPS and try to navigate through the streets from memory. A small 2020 study suggested that people who used GPS more frequently over time showed a steeper cognitive decline in spatial memory three years later.
Games such as bridge and chess are great for memory, but so is a simpler game, said Restak. For instance, Restak’s “favorite working memory game” is 20 Questions — in which a group (or a single person) thinks of a person, place or object, and the other person, the questioner, asks 20 questions with a yes-or-no answer. To succeed, he said, the questioner must hold all of the previous answers in memory in order to guess the correct answer.
Another of Restak’s tried-and-true memory exercises simply requires a pen and paper or audio recorder. First, recall all of the U.S. presidents, starting with President Joe Biden and going back to, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, writing or recording them. Then, do the same, from FDR to Biden. Next, name only the Democratic presidents, and only the Republican ones. Last, name them in alphabetical order.
Beware of technology
Among Restak’s three new sins of memory, two are associated with technology.
First is what he calls “technological distortion.” Storing everything on your phone means that “you don’t know it,” Restak said, which can erode our own mental abilities. “Why bother to focus, concentrate and apply effort to visualize something when a cellphone camera can do all the work for you?” he wrote.
The second way our relationship with technology is detrimental for memory is because it often takes our focus away from the task at hand.
“In our day, the greatest impediment of memory is distraction,” Restak wrote. Many of these tools have been designed with the aim of addicting the person using them, and, as a result, we are often distracted by them. People today can check their email while streaming Netflix, talking with a friend or walking down the street. All of this impedes our ability to focus on the present moment, which is critical for encoding memories.
Work with a mental health professional if you need to
Your mood plays a big role in what you do or do not remember.
Depression, for instance, can greatly decrease memory. Among “people who are referred to neurologists for memory issues, one of the biggest causes is depression,” Restak said.
Your emotional state affects the kind of memories you recall. The hippocampus (or “memory entry center,” according to Restak) and the amygdala (the part of the brain that manages emotions and emotional behavior) are linked — so “when you’re in a bad mood, or depressed, you tend to remember sad things,” Restak said. Treating depression — either chemically or via psychotherapy — often restores memory.