What’s the name of your daughter’s teacher, and where did you put your keys again? If you’ve ever wished you could do some simple things to sharpen your memory skills, you can. We’ve talked to the experts and compiled the latest thinking on improving the muscles in your brain associated with memory.
1. Talk with your hands.
It may sound strange, but waving your hands and gesturing while trying to learn a concept may help your brain remember something important, says Jeff Brown, PsyD, ABPP, coauthor of The Winner’s Brain. "Gesturing in a meaningful way while you are learning may help you when recalling the concept,” he says. “The idea is that you are storing at least two different types of information about something you'll need to recall later. A good example of this is when kids speak math problems aloud, but also 'work them' in the air.” Tactics to try: When you’ve just learned someone’s name, “write” it down on the palm of your hand with your finger. The act of tracing the letters on your palm (discreetly, of course) can help your brain remember it, says Dr. Brown. Or, “Air-write on an imaginary map of your grocery store or mall as you name aloud the items or stores you need to remember when shopping.”
2. Take a chill pill.
Learning to calm down and not carry as much stress can help your brain in significant ways, says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, PT, a psychologist and physical therapist in Wexford, Pennsylvania, and the author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness. “The best tip to improve your memory is: Reduce your stress,” says Dr. Lombardo. “Research shows that when people experience chronic stress, their hippocampus—the part of your brain that is responsible for some memories—literally shrinks in size.” In fact, a 2007 study in the journal Neurology by researchers at Rush University Medical School found that people who are easily distressed and had more negative emotions were more likely to develop memory problems than more easygoing people. How to reduce your stress? Consider delegating more tasks at work, clearing your social calendar for the weekend (there’s nothing wrong with having nothing on the calendar!) and purging negative relationships from your life.
3. Get plenty of zzz’s.
You’ve heard the concept of “sleeping on it” when you’re faced with a problem or difficult decision, right? Well, getting a good night’s sleep can help you improve your memory, too. "Sleep is critical for memory consolidation,” says Dr. Brown. “Getting at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep following exposure to new information can help in the recall of that information.” But there’s an important side note: “The trick is going directly to bed without inserting any new information or activity between what you want to recall and going to sleep—no reading, no TV, no sex, no music."
4. Eat more fruits and veggies.
Eating your spinach—and carrots and peas—is not only good for your body, it’s good for your memory, too. A recent Harvard study found that people who ate more vegetables had a slower decline of brain function as they aged. “Other studies, such as one published in Pharmacology, have shown that essential brain-boosting nutrients found in certain produce, such as quercetin and anthocyanin, may reverse memory loss,” says Tosca Reno, a health and fitness expert and author of the bestselling book The Eat-Clean Diet. You can find these compounds in cruciferous vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage, as well as in leafy greens, including kale, spinach and Swiss chard. Also load up on brightly colored produce such as berries, red apples, eggplant and grapes—their bright hue is an indication of their brain-boosting antioxidants.
5. Join a book club.
Not only is reading great for your brain, but discussing what you’ve read can improve your memory by leaps and bounds, says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD. In fact, a book club with your closest girlfriends may help strengthen your brain’s frontal lobe function. “The frontal lobe is the last region of the brain to develop, but the first to decline with age,” explains Dr. Chapman. “To strengthen function of the frontal lobe, engage in deeper-level thinking activities such as interpreting what you read in a book, discussing the ‘larger messages’ in the book and pushing to see how many meanings you can derive from it.”
6. Go to yoga class.
What can a downward-facing-dog pose do for your memory? A lot, says Gina Norman, a yoga teacher in New York City. “A new study out of the University of North Carolina shows that brief meditative exercise helps cognition and skills essential to critical thinking,” she says. But if you’re not into yoga, exercise of any kind works to boost your brain, says Dr. Lombardo. “Research shows that exercise increases the blood flow to all areas of your body, including the brain and specifically areas involved in memory,” she says. “One study found that mice who exercised grew new brain cells in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus which can be affected by declines in memory as we get older.” Short on time? “Try running up a flight of stairs, jogging to a bathroom that is farther away from you, doing 50 jumping jacks, putting on a great song and dancing around, or grabbing your child’s hand and jumping on the bed together.”
7. Sniff some rosemary.
Parsley and sage are great, as is thyme, but when it comes to improving memory, rosemary is king. In a recent study, UK researchers looked at scents and how they boosted or detracted from mental performance. They found that office workers whose cubicles were infused with the scent of rosemary had better long-term memory than those in unscented cubes. “There are other essential oils that can help with memory, but rosemary is by far the best and most economical,” says Cher Core, an aromatherapist in Boston. “Diffuse rosemary essential oil in the air, wear it in a perfume, use it in mists and more. It is a good choice for those studying and folks who need help with memory, focus and concentration.”
8. Pay attention.
Duh, right? It may sound obvious, but according to experts, when most people think they’re having memory problems, it’s really because they were distracted or didn’t record the information in their brain properly to begin with, says Linda Edelstein, PhD, adjunct faculty at Northwestern University and the author of The Art of Midlife. “When people cannot retrieve information it is often because they haven't taken it in in the first place,” she says. “You cannot recall information that you did not store.” The number-one trick to paying closer attention? Stop multitasking and be fully present. That means setting down the BlackBerry while lunching with your friend, turning off the TV when you’re trying to read something and not letting your eyes—or mind—wander when chatting with someone at a party. You’ll be more likely to remember the person’s name.
9. Learn a new song.
Have you ever found yourself singing along to a song you love that debuted 10 years ago, and yet you still don’t know the lyrics? Learning the words could be fun, but it could also be good for your memory in general. By memorizing a song, “you will be working out at least two different kinds of memory, auditory and verbal, which is probably something you don't do very often,” says Cynthia Green, PhD, an expert on brain health and memory. “The research suggests that constantly challenging our brains with intellectual pursuits may boost our ‘cognitive reserve’ and can have the associated benefit of reducing our dementia risk over the long-term.”
10. Go ahead and doodle.
When’s the last time you grabbed a pencil and paper and let your mind go—drawing hearts and rainbows, or whatever scene or object popped into your head? Surprisingly, says Dr. Green, a free-flowing pen could be the key to strengthening your brain’s memory centers. “Doodling has been found in studies to boost concentration, which is an essential first step to learning and memory,” says Dr. Green. “After all, if you can't focus on information, you don't acquire it effectively, and you can never remember something you don't learn in the first place!”
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