When someone says "memory," we tend to think of a thing, like the "misty, water-coloured memories" of song. Memories can be nostalgic images and visions we recall, or bits of facts, figures, and knowledge we've accumulated. Or it can be like this space inside of our head where we tuck treasured thoughts away, a kind of mental file cabinet.
But when it comes to keeping your memory healthy, it's good to think of memory as a verb – remembering. To remember, to create a memory, is active – to make sense of a new piece of knowledge, store it away in our brains, and retrieve it later when we need it. And to keep our memory robust and agile, we need to be active and proactive.
We need to move often. You can't literally jog your memory. But our brains absolutely love exercise. When we exercise, our brains get a workout right along with the rest of our body. Regular physical activity helps us to reach or maintain a healthy weight, improves circulation, and keeps cholesterol and blood pressure in check. Some research has shown that if you were to get a brain scan right after your workout, you would see your brain lit up with activity, and some parts may have even grown in volume! To really get the most memory power out of exercise, try activities that integrate three big brain benefits – movement, learning new skills, and socializing. Think partner or group dance classes, martial arts, or team sports like soccer and softball.
We need to socialize. Social isolation among the elderly may be to blame for at least some degree of cognitive impairment that happens with age. Evidence supports this, and people who forge ties to others tend to experience less memory decline as they get older. Whether it's a deep, stimulating conversation or just a chat with neighbours on the way to the mailbox, socializing is about making a connection. Our brains thrive on these connections. Interacting with others engages so many parts of our brains: we listen, we watch, we read facial expression and body language, we hunt for the right word to describe emotions or sensations, we call up past events, we reach out to touch and shake hands or give a goodbye fist bump. All of this communication provides the brain with mental exercise.
We need to relax. You know that feeling in your body when you're tense? Tight shoulders, clenched jaw, et cetera? Well, your brain feels the strain, too. Chronic anxiety or depression can cause the brain to be constantly bathed with the stress hormone cortisol. Some evidence shows that all of that cortisol may cause a part of the brain's temporal lobe, the hippocampus (which helps us stow short-term memories so they'll turn into long-term ones), to shrink. To de-stress, cultivate relaxation techniques, like meditation or yoga. Or organize your time to minimize stress using day planners, to-do lists, and handheld digital devices. And don't take on more than you can effectively manage.
We need to sleep. While relaxation is a conscious and focused effort, real rest should be a purely unconscious thing! Deprive yourself of good sleep and you're more likely to experience memory loss. Not to mention that when you're overly tired, it's hard to deal well with stress, which we know can affect memory, too. But get plenty of sleep, and you allow your body and brain to be rejuvenated and replenished. Even a quick cat-nap has its brain benefits. Doze for just 5 to 10 minutes, and you may be able to better remember something you've recently learned or memorized. A longer lay-about, and you'll get an energy and concentration boost. Snatching a snooze for more than 45 minutes may hone your declarative and procedural memory – that is, it might be easier to remember and explain facts and to perform physical tasks you've just learned, like sewing, playing a tune on the piano, or dancing the tango.
We need to eat well. As it goes with exercise, so it goes with food: What's good for the heart is good for the brain! In that case, we should feed our memories foods that are lower in artery-clogging saturated and trans fats, like lean protein and whole grains. We must remember to up our intake of the beneficial fats, including omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and olive oil. Vitamin- and antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables should find their way into every meal and most snacks. The brain will gladly gobble up foods rich in B vitamins, like folate, B12 (cobalamin), and choline. And vitamin E, especially when coupled with vitamin C, has been linked to reduced cognitive decline with aging. Of course, everything should be taken in moderation – some studies suggest that high-calorie diets may increase the risk of disorders like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
We need to sip smart. Faced with a mentally challenging, memory-dependent task, you may feel tempted to down a coffee or caffeinated energy drink. While caffeine can perk you up, it might actually undermine your memorizing and recall efforts. One study showed this stimulant may impair an important chemical messenger in the brain that helps us to recall newly-created memories. And though it's said that some drink to forget, one study showed people who drink occasional alcoholic beverages may have a memory advantage over those who never drink.
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