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How to Improve Your Memory

Wish your powers of recall were as powerful as this elephant’s? Here are nine mind-sharpening strategies that can help. 

By Alice Oglethorpe
Close up of elephant face and trunkChristopher Griffith1 of 41.

Elephants’ famed powers of recall helps them survive. One recent Wildlife Conservation Society study reported that elephant herds with members who had lived through droughts had a higher survival rate than did other herds: The seasoned elephants knew to move their groups to safer, wetter ground when the dry season hit.

 


4. Choose Smart Supplements

Forget about ginkgo biloba. A recent study found that this herbal supplement has no positive impact on memory. However, a few supplements are known to encourage the growth of new neurons and decrease substances that can inhibit cognitive function. The gold standard is fish oil, according to Lori Daiello, an assistant professor of neurology (research) at the Alpert Medical School. Fish oil has been associated with lowering the risk of dementia because it contains DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that decreases the production of memory-inhibiting substances in the brain and that may be involved in the formation of new neurons, says Daiello. Increasing your consumption of fatty fish, like salmon, helps; or you can take a daily supplement containing at least 180 milligrams of DHA. Vitamin D may also work, since it “stimulates the growth of new neurons and helps clear protein abnormalities associated with diseases that affect memory, such as dementia,” says David J. Llewellyn, a research fellow in epidemiology and public health at the University of Exeter, in England. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends women take at least 600 international units [IU] daily.) You might also consider a folic acid, B6, and B12 complex. “All three of these B vitamins are needed to remove the amino acid homocysteine from your blood,” says Barnard. “Homocysteine is produced during normal processes in the body, but if too much of it builds up, it can result in poor brain function.”

5. Get Still

“Meditation improves your concentration and focus, which benefits memory,” says Dharma Singh Khalsa, the medical director and the president of the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, in Tucson. In addition, meditation has been shown to reduce stress, which can do a number on memory. “When we’re under stress, our body and brain release hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and CRH [corticotropin-releasing hormone], which in short bursts can help us fight or flee danger,” says Tallie Z. Baram, a professor of neurological sciences at the University of California, Irvine. But when you’re stressed-out over long periods of time, these hormones change the structure of the hippocampus, destroying nerve endings involved in information flow. A study released last year showed that subjects who performed a 12-minute chanting meditation once a day for eight weeks saw marked improvement in their memory and increased blood flow in the areas of the brain used in a variety of memory tasks. (Find instructions on how to start a meditation practice at mayoclinic.com.)

6. Do Something Out of the Ordinary

New experiences, such as taking a different route to work, can also improve recall. “Our brains are constantly deciding what’s important enough to remember and what can be tossed away,” says R. Douglas Fields, a senior investigator in neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland. “When you’re in a novel situation, your brain assumes that information is going to be important and holds on to it.” Also, “you’ll better retain things that happen immediately after a novel experience,” he says. “The cellular machinery of consolidating short-term memories into long-term ones has been activated, so it keeps working.” Which means that after your new commute, you may be better able to remember what happens at the morning meeting.

7. Check Your Medicine Cabinet

A number of medications can affect memory, says Barnard, including antihistamines; antidepressants, like Prozac; antianxiety drugs, like Xanax; and sleep aids, like Ambien. Each has its own way of working in the brain. For instance, Barnard says, “antihistamines block acetylcholine, a brain transmitter necessary for short-term memory, while Xanax and Ambien knock out episodic memory, so anything that happens when you’re on the medication may not stick around in your brain.” Don’t stop taking any prescription drug without talking to your doctor, but bring up the subject at your next visit. An alternative medicine or treatment may be available.

 

8. Get Checked Out

Two more-serious (but less common) issues could cause memory lapses: gluten sensitivity and thyroid disease. “If you have an undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, and you’re eating foods like bread and crackers, your memory could suffer,” says Stefano Guandalini, the medical director of the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. Many people describe the feeling as a “brain fog”—a slightly out-of-it, fuzzy sensation. Your doctor can screen for gluten sensitivity, and dietary modifications can keep the condition in check. Thyroid disorders can also wreak havoc on recall. If you notice increasing forgetfulness, along with depression or a change in weight or your periods, see your doctor. Medication often gets the condition under control.

9. Challenge Your Head

“We know that people who are cognitively active have better memory as they age,” says Michael Kahana, the director of the Computational Memory Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Foundations of Human Memory ($60, amazon.com). So how can you keep your brain going strong? “Staying engaged in the world around you reinforces the connections between neurons,” says Bettcher. “So do some fun activities that make you think.” Go to a museum once a month, learn words in a new language, watch a documentary on a subject that fascinates you, or—yes—do a crossword or sudoku puzzle. Another strategy: Quiz yourself. For example, if you want to remember new people you met at an event, “picture each of their faces and try to remember their names on the ride home,” says Henry L. Roediger III, a professor of psychology at Washington University, in St. Louis. When you flex your brain this way, you’ll be able to pull up their names at the next gathering. Fred from accounting (remember him?) will be impressed.

For some fun, memory-boosting exercises, log on to realsimple.com/braingames.

 

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