25 Tips to Recharge Your Memory

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The best ways to beat absentmindedness are amazingly simple - and totally fun

Is there any better advice than your mother's adage to "Put things back in the same place," or the used car salesman's habit of repeating your name over and over?

There's plenty! But that doesn't mean that your mom and the salesman aren't on to something. Many of the old-fashioned tips work-if you establish a habit of using them. But there are also new ideas, variations on classics, and specific-and fun-ways to sharpen your recall.

Here's something you can do right now, right where you are, to improve your memory:

Repeat this sentence: My memory is better than I think it is. What you believe about your memory can have an impact on how well you remember things, says Robin West, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. When she had a group of volunteers attempt a difficult memory task, she found that those who were told that memory was a skill that could be improved with effort did better than those who were told their memory couldn't be improved. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy-if you assume you can't do it, you don't put forth enough effort or pay as much attention, or do what it takes to succeed," says Dr. West.

Studies do show, however, that as we age we tend to experience declines in memory ability. But these declines are typically much less dramatic than you'd expect. "If there is a decline-and there isn't always-it's really, really slow and subtle," says Elizabeth Zelinski, PhD, associate professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. How subtle? She and her colleagues tested the memory of adults of different ages in 1978, and again in 1994, by asking them to try to remember a list of 20 items. Someone who remembered 17 items in 1978 might remember 13 or 14 when repeating the test 16 years later.

To get an idea of where you might stand, see "How Good Is Your Memory?" below.

Outsmart Common Memory Blips Okay, your memory's better than you realized. But it will slip up from time to time. Many everyday memory problems can be dealt with by using common sense and planning. Here's what to do when...

You can't remember a name.

Quick solution: Ask where, not who. "Often we have trouble remembering people when they're in the wrong place. Figure out where you know them from, and you can usually recall their names," suggests Dr. Zelinski.

How to prevent: Hi, Herman, Herman, Herman. "We tend to forget words or names we don't use often," says Dr. Zelinski, "so repeat the new information [to yourself] to help embed it into your memory." It's most effective to repeat a name when the person is in front of you. That's why salesmen use your name in just about every sentence.

You can't find your car keys.

Quick solution: First, calm down. Looking for missing keys is frustrating-which makes you tense up. But the tenser you become, the less effective your memory is. So take a deep breath. Then retrace your steps from the last moment you had the keys in your hand. Re-creating the situation puts it into some context, which makes your memory work better.

How to prevent: Ambush your autopilot. Why can't you remember where you dropped your keys? Because you've done it a thousand times before. "When you do routine things, you're likely to forget, because there's nothing special about it," Dr. Zelinski explains. Because memory doesn't work well on autopilot, don't rely on it. Instead, do what Mother told you when you lost your skates twice a day: Keep them in one place. On a hook, in a box, in your pocket, around your neck-put the keys there as soon as you walk in the door-every time!

You can't remember where you parked.

Quick solution: Check your "snapshot." "One of the things humans are very good at is remembering what they see," says Dr. Zelinski. Ask your mind's eye what you saw as you parked, got out of the car, and walked toward the building. This should give you a clue as to where the car is.

How to prevent: A-TEN-shun!

Failing to focus "is one of the biggest things that interferes with memory," notes Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, director of the Memory Clinic at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. How can you remember a detail that never registered? Each time you park, notice where you are. Look for landmarks such as signs. As you approach the building, look back once or twice to see your car.

You know the word-but it's stuck on the tip of your tongue.

Quick solution: Sounds like... "Your brain stores words by how they sound as well as by their meaning. Run through those similar-sounding words out loud and the right one may pop out," says Dr. Zelinski. (This can also work with names.)

How to prevent: There's not much you can do to head off this all-too-common phenomenon. But you can revel in the fact that your vocabulary is probably better than it ever was-and improving every day. That's because we don't lose our memory of old words even as we learn new ones.
Nourish Maximum Recall

Luckily, your brain doesn't ask for special treatment; many of the routines that keep your body healthy will keep your brain in good working order too. Here's a checklist:

See your doc. Your physician can spot many reversible causes of memory problems-such as medication side effects or serious medical conditions (see "Are You Losing It? When to See the Doctor," below). Be sure to get screened for vision and hearing problems, since these can seem like memory deficits if they're subtle.

Manage the memory stealers. Some of the most common health hazards associated with aging-diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol-can have a negative impact on your memory if they aren't controlled by diet, exercise, and, if necessary, medication. "All of these conditions contribute to a narrowing of the blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain," explains Jay Lombard, MD, assistant clinical professor of neurology at Cornell University Medical Center in New York City, and author of The Brain Wellness Plan (Kensington, 1997).

Order brain food. If elephants never forget, it may be because of their plant-rich diet. Get plenty of the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E found in brightly colored fruits and green, leafy vegetables (aim for seven servings a day).

Also, take a multivitamin to get at least the Daily Values for these nutrients. Their antioxidant action may protect brain cells much as they do other cells in the body.

Get your omegas. Studies have linked consumption of foods rich in a class of unsaturated fats called omega-3 fatty acids to a lower incidence of depression and dementia (loss of intellectual function). One type of omega-3, called DHA, may help improve nerve cell function in the brain. Good sources include anchovies, tuna, herring, and salmon (but not the smoked varieties). Your goal: one or two servings a week.

Ease your mind. Cortisol-the hormone your body releases when you're stressed-is toxic to the nervous system. "High levels of cortisol inhibit cells from using oxygen and glucose-so they literally end up starving," says Dr. Lombard. One way to keep stress from battering your memory bank is to give your brain some time off, says Cynthia Green, PhD, director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai-NYU Medical Center in New York City. "Give yourself periods of downtime during the day; intersperse periods of mental activity with periods of relative inactivity."

Train your brain. When asked what people should do to keep their memory strong, every memory expert we talked to came out in favor of exercise. Mental exercise, that is. What works? Just about anything you enjoy doing (for suggestions, see "Play with Your Head," p 117), if you follow these guidelines:

Mix it up. Following the same logic, it takes different activities to exercise different types of memory. You can't rely on just one to do it.

Challenge yourself. "Read complicated novels or do crossword puzzles once in a while," suggests Dr. West. "If you keep the level of challenge up, you have a greater chance of maintaining your ability."

Fill your calendar. In addition to choosing activities that give you a memory workout, be sure to keep your mind engaged and stimulated. Read engrossing books, see interesting movies, go to exhibitions and lectures, join new groups, and talk to new people. Though a true cause-and-effect relationship has yet to be proven, many studies link an active life to a well-functioning memory. Besides, now that your memory's working so well, don't you want some new experiences that are worth remembering?

How Good Is Your Memory?

Read over this list for 1 minute, then try to recall as many words as you can.

pickle mailbox
artist lipstick
button shovel
table engine
balloon nickel

Scoring:
The average for each age-group is
up to age 30 8 or 9 right
30 to 40 7 or 8
40 to 60 6 or 7
60 to 70 5 or 6
70 plus 4 or 5

If you do better than your age-group, great! If not, don't panic-there's great variability in how people perform on memory tests. But, see your doctor if you found it difficult to remember more than one or two words with serious effort.

ILLUSTRATION

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By Rick Chillot

Rick Chillot is Prevention's health news editor and remembers every comic book he's ever read.

PLAY WITH YOUR HEAD

Even if brain-teasing board games, books, and word puzzles weren't part of your rainy-day repertoire as a kid, immerse yourself in their pleasures now. The following are great for keeping your mind active-which is a key part of keeping your memory cookin'. (These can get you started; feel free to come up with other ideas of your own.)

To exercise your ability to remember words: Crossword puzzles and Scrabble (Milton Bradley) are old favorites that will give your memory a workout. Newer word games to try include Scattergories and Taboo (both by Hasbro).

To exercise your ability to remember names: Try reading novels that feature many characters. One suggestion: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabr'el Garcia Marquez (HarperCollins, 1970), is especially tricky since many characters have the same name. Most editions include a family tree that will help you when you lose track of who's who.

Also, take a cue from a detective: Write down the names of people you meet and anticipate seeing.

To exercise your ability to remember where you parked: Orienteering, a family sport in which you follow a map across unfamiliar terrain, may get you in the habit of paying attention to where you're going. To find your way to an orienteering event, write to the US Orienteering Federation at P.O. Box 1444, Forest Park, GA 30298, or check out their Web site: www.us.orienteering.org.

To exercise your ability to remember where things are: Try Stratego (Milton Bradley)-to win, you'll need to remember which of your opponent's pieces have moved and which haven't.

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ARE YOU LOSING IT? WHEN TO SEE THE DOCTOR

Is your forgetfulness due to something serious, such as Alzheimer's disease? The fact that you're worried probably means you're okay. In general, people whose memory is affected by serious medical conditions usually aren't aware of the problem themselves. "The real danger is not when you're worried, but when other people are worried about you," says Jay Lombard, MD, assistant clinical professor of neurology at Cornell University Medical Center in New York City.

Still, it's okay to take your memory problems to your doctor, and you definitely should if the problems...

* have noticeably worsened over the course of a year or less.
* are accompanied by significant changes in mood or perception.
* have to do with geographical or spatial orientation.
* interfere with your day-to-day functioning.

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