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Memory Fitness

It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.
—René Descartes

Are you frustrated by forgetfulness? If so, you are not alone. People of all ages complain about the memory lapses that get in their way, such as forgetting their keys, scheduling two appointments for the same time, losing a train of thought, not recalling what they wanted to get from the kitchen, and — worst of all! — forgetting names. As people grow older, these slips seem to become more frequent and can even be frightening. It’s all too easy to worry that each little memory lapse is actually the early sign of a slow decline to dementia.

Although diabetes seems to increase a person’s risk for developing dementia, dementia is still relatively uncommon in people with diabetes. And while there is thought to be some decline in a person’s ability to learn new things with increasing age, a lot of forgetfulness is often just caused by poor memory health.

Can people improve their memories? Absolutely. Almost everyone can improve their daily memory performance, no matter what their age, medical history, or background. Healthy adults who do not have a memory disorder such as dementia can boost their memory power simply by practicing better memory health habits. Just as exercise can improve physical health, so too can certain techniques and lifestyle changes enhance memory fitness. All it takes is an awareness of what good memory health habits are and a commitment to making them part of your daily routine. This article describes some strategies you can put in place today that could really rev up your recall.

Paying attention
One of the main reasons people forget something is that they weren’t paying attention to the information in the first place. You may notice that you’re more likely to forget names when you are preoccupied with work or haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep. Or that you “space out” in conversations more when a family dilemma weighs heavily on your mind. Attention is one of the most sensitive aspects of intellectual functioning, and it’s hard to pay attention to one thing if you are distracted by other things around you, thinking about something else, or have something going on in your life that is making it hard for you to remain focused. Attention is essential to memory, and if it is lacking, the problem is not really forgetting, but rather that the information wasn’t stored properly in the first place. The great news is that there are many strategies to help improve attention.

Learn to focus. While no one is 100% in focus all the time, you can help yourself by ratcheting up your focus during times you really need to be paying attention. When you are introduced to someone whose name you must remember, concentrate your awareness on that name. Make an effort to keep your focus in meetings where you need to ignore distractions and keep track of what is being said.

Practice exercises that build your attention control. Some of the best attention control exercises come from the field of stress management. For example, spend a few minutes every day focusing only on your breathing, shutting out everything else. Or concentrate on each of your senses, one at a time, as you eat your first bite of a food at each meal.

Build your attention span. Keeping focused on one thing for a long time can be challenging for some, but you can build your attention span with enjoyable activities. For example, many games can help you learn to keep focused, think quickly, and shift strategies to win. Figure out how to play the games on your cell phone, buy electronic handheld games (there are various versions of old favorites, such as Boggle and Simon), borrow the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable from your favorite teen, or search online for some engaging puzzles (a favorite is Set, which you can find at www.setgame.com).

Lifestyle
Many people are unaware that their daily lifestyle choices can affect memory. You can maximize memory health by identifying whether any lifestyle factors are interfering with your memory performance and learning. Here are a few things you can do to ensure you are leading a memory-healthy lifestyle:

Exercise, sleep, and diet. Exercise, sleep, and diet all affect one’s ability to learn and retain information. What matters to our body matters to our memory.

Keeping active can make it easier for your memory to be at its best. For example, two recent studies found that both men and women remembered better if they participated in moderate exercise (such as walking) on a regular basis. These findings mesh well with the Surgeon General’s recommendation for people to engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week.

Achieving good memory fitness also requires getting a good night’s sleep. Because fatigue interferes with attention, it makes learning new things more difficult. Fatigue can also make it harder to recall things you know well, such as a word or name. Having a regular, relaxing sleep routine will boost your chances of getting adequate rest. If you have trouble sleeping on occasion, you can try some other ways to help your memory the day after a poor night’s sleep, including the following: Take more frequent notes, take extra care to avoid distractions, and — most important — keep in mind that it’s your sleep, not your memory, that is the problem. The National Sleep Foundation’s Web site, www.sleepfoundation.org, has some helpful information about good sleep habits. If you have a persistent sleep problem, your health-care provider can help you find out more about the cause and potential treatments for your sleeplessness. Most prescription medicines for sleep disturbance are best used only for short-term treatment, so your physician or sleep specialist will likely recommend behavioral strategies or treating underlying conditions rather than sleeping pills to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Your memory will be healthier if you eat a healthful diet. While there is no special diet for improving memory, following the current dietary guidelines of the American Diabetes Association (ADA) is a safe bet because high blood glucose levels have been linked to cognitive impairment. Although more study is needed, there is some evidence that hypertension (high blood pressure) can contribute to memory problems. People with hypertension or those at risk for hypertension may want to work with a dietitian to incorporate the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan into their lifestyles. The DASH diet, which encourages reducing red meat intake and eating more whole-grain foods, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Adding a reduction in sodium intake along with the DASH plan has shown even greater improvements in blood pressure.

Alcohol abuse has been shown to cause memory loss and possibly increases the risk of developing dementia. The ADA says that consuming alcohol in moderation (no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) is OK for most people with diabetes. A drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 1/2 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Although you may have seen reports of studies finding that moderate alcohol consumption can lower risks of heart and brain problems, results are still preliminary, and no national health organization advocates starting to drink if you do not drink already.

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 are prescribed a hearing aid do not purchase or use one. Being able to see well can make a difference, too. By age 50, almost everyone has presbyopia 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.

Make sure that you use memory tools that suit your lifestyle and memory needs, so that you’ll be more likely to use them. Then make sure that you use them every day. There is no scientific evidence that using memory tools hurts your recall ability in any way. In fact, people who use such tools tend to be more organized and remember better.

There are some things, though, that must be memorized, such as certain names at an interview or a business meeting, PIN numbers, and passwords. How can you make it easier to remember such information? There are several simple methods you can get into the habit of using that can help to maximize your memory power. Here are some examples:

Use repetition. Repeat information to yourself as you are learning it. Repetition forces you to focus on the material and gives you an additional chance to learn it. For example, if you are assigned locker 2415 at the gym, simply repeat the number a few times to yourself to boost your recall for it.

Make a connection. This technique is helpful for remembering people’s names. When you are introduced to someone, mentally connect or hook their name with someone you already know. When meeting “Jennifer,” think of your friend Jennifer or of a famous Jennifer, such as Jennifer Lopez. Connecting the name in this way gives it a context and can make it more meaningful and easier to remember.

Take a mental snapshot. Many people are unaware of the power of visual imagery. Next time you need to memorize something, try forming a mental snapshot or picture of the word or item (or something related to or sounding like it). For example, if you need to remember the password “apple,” visualize an apple clearly in your mind’s eye. If you need to remember the name “Tiana,” visualize a tiara or the letters of the word “Tiana” in neon lights.

Make up a story. Make up stories that use the information you need to remember. A short, silly, and exaggerated story often works best. For example, if you wanted to remember the license number “PA290F,” you might think, “In Pennsylvania, it’s 290 degrees Fahrenheit.” Storytelling is a technique many people like, because it’s natural for people to hear and tell information as a narrative. (Click here for a chance to try out these tools and techniques.)

What do you need to do now? Make these healthy memory habits part of your daily routine. Achieving better memory fitness is not hard, and you might be amazed at the improvement in your memory by making even a few of these changes.



Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.