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Memory Fitness
How to Get It, How to Keep It

by Cynthia R. Green, PhD

Because caffeine can interfere with sleep, especially if taken late in the day, you should monitor your caffeine intake. If you have trouble sleeping, reducing your intake of caffeine or not consuming any within several hours of bedtime could help you get to sleep easier. And sleep, as mentioned earlier, is important to helping you maintain focus and learn new things.

Adequate hearing and vision. You cannot remember what you cannot hear. Yet up to 80% of American adults who could benefit from a hearing aid do not use one. Being able to see well can make a difference, too. By age 50, almost everyone has presbyopia (age-related long-sightedness) and needs corrective reading glasses, contact lenses, or surgery to see clearly. However, some people resist making the necessary accommodations and miss out on visual information that can aid in recall. Help your memory by using whatever assistive devices you need to maintain your senses.

Stress. Emotional distress, such as from anxiety, depression, or stress, makes people more distractible and interferes with memory function. Recent research suggests that stress may even have a direct, negative effect on the areas of the brain most responsible for memory. While it is normal to experience a certain amount of stress in your life, if feelings of anxiety, sadness, or despair interfere with your day-to-day activities, it is probably time to seek professional help. Doing so will benefit not only your memory but also your quality of life.

Intellectual stimulation. As people grow older, they tend to use their brains in the same way, over and over again. However, regularly trying new and different intellectual activities can improve both your recall and your general intellectual health. Electronic games, crossword puzzles, chess, jigsaw puzzles, brain teasers, and card games such as bridge are good tools for giving your brain a workout. Reading, keeping up on current affairs, or taking up a new hobby can also help. Activities that get you to interact with other people, such as volunteering, learning a foreign language, or taking a class, challenge your brain and have the added benefit of keeping you socially active, a factor that has been linked to successful aging.

Medicines. Certain medicines can affect memory function as a side effect or through multiple-drug interactions. Some antihistamines, antianxiety drugs, bladder control drugs, and pain relievers are among the drugs that have been found to lower memory potential over the course of their use. Does that mean you should stop taking them if you need them? Absolutely not. But it does mean that if you are concerned about your memory, you should talk to your doctor about any medicines you take and the effects they may have on your memory performance. If a particular drug appears to be affecting your memory, you may have the option of trying a different medicine. Alternatively, practicing better memory habits may make up for any mild mental changes that result from using a certain drug. Under no circumstances, however, should you stop taking a prescribed medicine without medical supervision.

Despite advertised claims, there is no supplement or vitamin that has been proven to improve memory in a healthy person. (However, people with a vitamin B12 deficiency can experience memory loss and neurological damage without a monthly injection of vitamin B12.) Keep in mind, however, that your memory isn’t sick or broken; it’s just out of shape. And you can fix that.

Memory tools and techniques
Do you have a lot to keep in mind over the course of the day? Perhaps you have reports to finish, phone calls to make, errands to run, medicines to take, not to mention appointments to keep. How can you possibly maintain all of this information in your head? Chances are, you can’t. Memory tools — such as appointment books, “to do” lists, grocery lists, pillboxes with compartments or timers, and memo boards — are great ways to ensure that you can keep track of all you need to do. These types of tools organize the information you need to remember and save you the trouble of memorizing things that you only need to know for a short period of time.

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