Memory Help for Seniors: 11 Proven Tips for Boosting Your Brain
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Do you wonder if it's possible to improve your own or another senior's memory? Help definitely exists. And you don't have to buy some overhyped "miracle" brain booster to start enhancing your ability to remember things. In fact, many of the most effective ways to gain a better memory involve actions that you can take today—without spending a lot of money.
Of course, it's natural to worry about the kind of memory decline associated with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia that require memory care. But did you know that, according to an article in The BMJ, only about one in 10 people over the age of 65 develop mild cognitive impairment (which can sometimes mimic very mild dementia)? It's true. And only around 15 percent of those people develop Alzheimer's.
So our fears and expectations are often exaggerated. In a Pew Research Center survey, about 57 percent of younger adults between the ages of 18 and 64 said that they expect to have memory loss during their senior years. However, only about 25 percent of older adults over the age of 65 said they actually experience memory loss. That's a big gap.
Nevertheless, everybody wants to retain their memory. After all, memories form a major part of who we are. When we lose them, we feel like we lose pieces of ourselves. Plus, having a good memory serves all kinds of practical functions in our daily lives. Every single day, your memory helps you accomplish both basic and complex tasks. So it's vital to keep your brain as healthy and fit as possible.
Older adults who take proactive steps to prevent memory loss are often more adaptable, independent, and satisfied during their senior years. That's because the human brain has an amazing ability to change, collect new information, create new neural connections, and store important information in its long-term memory. By developing good habits and seeking out new learning opportunities, you can also improve or maintain your short-term memory (aka your working memory).
Plus, the field of neuroscience is still relatively young. With each passing year, scientists are discovering things about the human brain that we never knew before. In the future, we may be able to retrieve "lost" memories and improve our cognitive abilities with brain implants or targeted electrical stimulation. Genetic research may also lead to preventive therapies or targeted treatments that stop or reverse memory loss.
In the meantime, here are some of the best tips for maintaining or improving your memory:
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1. Use the Method of Loci and Other Practical Tricks
Ever heard of a memory palace? It's a place you build yourself, in your own mind. But it's based on a place that you can actually walk through, in the real world. Often referred to as the method of loci, this mnemonic technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. According to Lynne Kelly, author of The Memory Code, it may even predate ancient Greece by thousands of years. Along with myths, songs, rituals, and dances, it's possible that many of the world's oldest and most mysterious monuments were created in order to serve as memory aids, helping preliterate civilizations easily recall vast stores of critical knowledge.
Today, so-called "memory athletes" use the method of loci and other mnemonic techniques to train for competitions that require the memorization of huge lists of words or long sequences of cards or numbers. But you can use the technique to memorize anything that's important to you.
Here's how it works: First, you choose a physical place that's very familiar to you, such as your house, a local walking path, or a regular driving route. Then, you visualize that place in your mind, creating a precise mental journey based on distinct objects or landmarks. You'll creatively associate each piece of information you want to remember with a particular object or landmark that's part of your mental journey or memory palace. As a very basic example, let's say you want to remember a three-item grocery list—consisting of shoelaces, salsa, and strawberry yogurt—based on a memory palace of your house. You might imagine:
- Walking up to your front door, wiping your shoes on the welcome mat, and noticing that your laces are untied and on fire.
- Entering your kitchen, opening the refrigerator door, and watching a pair of miniature Latin lovers dance to salsa music.
- Going to your bathroom and witnessing your best friend bathe in a tub of pink yogurt.
When you're at the store, you'll simply take that same mental journey, beginning at your front door. For many people, it helps to visualize bizarre or outlandish scenarios like those above. Let your imagination run wild. The more you practice this technique, the easier it will become. Plus, according to an article in Neuron, training your memory in this way may have long-lasting cognitive benefits. So it's worth learning more about the method of loci and other mnemonic techniques by exploring books such as:
- Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
- Memory Palace: How to Remember Everything You Learn; A Guide to Learning With Unlimited Potential by Adam Brown
- Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive by Kevin Horsley
In addition to visualization, many seniors have success with other easy and practical memory-enhancing methods. Here are some examples:
- Chunking: When trying to memorize a long sequence of numbers or a long list of words or items, break them down into smaller groupings (just as you do for phone numbers or your Social Security number). In some cases, it also helps to group items by category, bundling them into easier-to-manage chunks of information.
- Acrostics and acronyms: Create a short poem out of a word or sequence of letters that you need to remember. For instance, when learning how to classically tune the six strings of a guitar to E, A, D, G, B, and E, many people are taught to remember the acrostic "Every Apple Does Go Bad Eventually." Acronyms serve a similar purpose. For example, geography students are often taught to use the acronym "HOMES" in order to remember the five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior).
- Planning and organization: Keep a notebook or day planner handy that has a calendar and plenty of space for writing down your various activities and appointments. At the beginning of each week, create a list of things you'll be doing in the days ahead. Then, each day, make a detailed to-do list. It's also helpful to review everything at the end of each day, writing down your thoughts about the various experiences and conversations you had. Your planner or notebook is also a good place to keep important information like birthdays, phone numbers, and anything else you may need to know on an ongoing basis. If you're comfortable with technology, a smartphone or digital tablet can serve as your planner.
- Talking out loud: Just like writing stuff down helps your brain put information into long-term memory, so does talking about it. So, for example, if you want to remember something you're reading, try saying it aloud. If you want to avoid forgetting why you've entered a certain room, tell yourself where you're going—and why—while on the way there. Or to remember more complex information, try explaining it to someone else.
- Varied repetition: When learning new information and trying to retain it for later use, it's helpful to review it multiple times—over time—in different ways. For instance, one day, you might take notes about something. A couple of days later, you might read your notes out loud. Then, a day or so after that, you might paraphrase what you've learned while talking to someone else.
- Cues and reminders: Give yourself visual or auditory prompts to help you remember the things you need to do. From post-it notes to alarms, it's easy to set up simple reminders. Just make sure you place them in the areas where you're most likely to see or hear them. Also, do your best to leave important objects in prominent locations that are related to the tasks you have to do.
- Doodling: Did you know that drawing "absentmindedly" may actually be good for your powers of attention and recall? According to an article in Applied Cognitive Psychology, whether you're listening to someone talk or learning something new, making doodles may help your brain stay alert, connect various pieces of information, and retain that information for later use.
2. Get Your Health Checked
Many kinds of medical conditions can cause or contribute to memory loss. So it's always wise to see your doctor if you notice any cognitive issues that don't seem to be going away on their own. Of course, most of us immediately think of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia as possible culprits. But forgetfulness can also be caused by conditions such as:
- Thyroid problems
- Hormone imbalances
- Heart disease
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- HIV infection
- Blood clots just above the brain's surface
- Brain tumors (benign or cancerous)
In addition, many types of medication can interfere with memory. For example, some seniors experience forgetfulness when taking:
- Muscle relaxants
- Anti-anxiety medication
- Post-surgical pain medication
- Sleep aids
- Statins (for lowering cholesterol)
- Allergy or cold medication
- Anticholinergic drugs
Simply put, your physical health and mental well-being are closely linked. That's why it is so important to get screened for possible medical problems and ensure that you receive proper treatment for them. Also, make a commitment to lose weight if you're obese. And seek help to overcome any poor habits that can lead to health problems and memory loss, such as smoking, alcohol abuse, or drug addiction.
3. Keep Challenging Yourself
Mental stimulation is vital. But in order to improve your memory, you need to do more than what you are already good at. You need to keep learning new things. The more you challenge your brain, the more you can potentially enhance your memory. That's why so-called brain-training games and exercises often have only a narrow or short-lived impact. They may challenge you a little in the beginning, but as soon as you get the hang of them, your brain is no longer learning.
An ongoing challenge is what allows many seniors to maintain or enhance their overall memory. Their brains benefit greatly from learning, shaking things up, and pushing boundaries. So finding hobbies or activities that keep you challenged and mentally engaged is essential. But in order to stick with them, you also need to feel joy when you do them and have a clear path for building upon what you learn as your skills become more advanced. For example, a lot of older adults benefit from learning how to:
- Speak new languages
- Conduct genealogy research
- Play new musical instruments
- Cook gourmet meals
- Identify various species of plants or birds
- Code websites
The point is to move beyond your comfort zone and try things that are completely new to you. The more you do, the greater your chances of preventing memory decline and boosting your powers of recall. Don't worry about failing at any particular activity. The benefits are gained from the act of challenging yourself, not from achieving someone else's idea of success. Do things at your own pace so that you stay satisfied and motivated to keep learning.
4. Improve Your Sleep Habits
Quality nights of sleep are essential for the consolidation of our memories. So if you're having trouble remembering things, you may not be getting enough good sleep. Of course, it's true that many seniors and elderly people have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for a full night of rest (which is usually considered about seven to nine solid hours). But that doesn't mean those sleep problems are normal. In order to avoid sleep-related memory decline, you may need to prioritize good nights of rest and change some of your habits. Here are some things to try:
- Make your bedroom darker, quieter, cooler, less cluttered, and more comfortable.
- Dim the lights at least an hour before bedtime.
- Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. (Wake up and go to bed at the same times every day.)
- Adjust your bedtime schedule to align with when you actually feel sleepy.
- Reduce or eliminate your consumption of caffeine, especially after noon.
- Avoid drinking alcohol in the few hours leading up to bedtime.
- Turn off the TV, computer, and any other backlit screen-based electronics an hour or more before bedtime.
- Go outside or enjoy a sunlit room during the day to get at least a couple of hours of sunshine.
- Wear earplugs or sleep in a separate room if your significant other has a snoring problem.
Following many of the other tips in this article can also lead to higher-quality sleep. For example, treating your health problems, adjusting your medications, reducing stress, watching what you eat, and getting regular exercise can all contribute to better nights of rest.
5. Change Your Mindset About Aging
How do you feel about getting older? Do you ever buy into the false notion that everyone "loses their marbles" as they age? Even if you don't consciously believe such incorrect stereotypes, your subconscious may still be receiving harmful and outdated messages about what it means to be a senior. That can lead to an underlying sense of anxiety about your future and contribute to memory problems.
But you have the power to shift that narrative. Tell yourself every day that you are a capable and thriving human being. Pay less attention to the number of years you've been alive and more attention to what you still want to learn and experience. If you believe you can do something, you'll stand a better chance of achieving it. That includes boosting your memory.
6. Remove Distractions and Sources of Stress
Mental strain and emotional tension can act as major barriers to the creation and retrieval of memories. That's especially true if you are chronically distracted or stressed out. After all, your brain can only process so much information at any one time. When your cognitive load is bigger than your brain's ability to handle it, you can't learn or consolidate new knowledge as effectively. So if you want to prevent memory loss and enjoy better powers of recall, you need to do whatever you can to minimize stress and distractions. For example:
- Do just one thing at a time instead of multitasking.
- Opt for a slower pace if you've been mindlessly rushing from one activity to the next.
- Pay close attention to each new piece of information you want to remember for at least 10 seconds.
- Let people know how you feel instead of keeping your emotions hidden.
- Meditate and take more frequent breaks, especially if your days are filled with nearly constant activity.
- Learn how to say no when you feel you need some downtime.
- Limit the amount of time you spend online since the Internet is full of distractions and may wire your brain to constantly crave new diversions, even of the meaningless or unimportant variety.
7. Take Brain Breaks and Meditate
Do you ever just let your mind wander freely, without consciously trying to think about anything in particular? According to a study in PLOS ONE, this kind of wakeful rest can have a positive effect on your memory, especially if it occurs after a period of learning. By taking at least 10 or 15 minutes to avoid any kind of activity or deliberate mental effort, your mind can more efficiently consolidate the information you learned and store it in your long-term memory. It's similar to what happens when you sleep.
Meditation is very similar in that the goal is to quiet the mind, regulate the nervous system, and promote calmness. Even short periods of meditation done regularly can improve overall well-being.
No matter how you practice taking mindful brain breaks, the key is to slow down the constant chatter in your brain and allow it to perform the "behind-the-scenes" work that is so important to memory.
8. Get Frequent Exercise
Many physicians like to say that if something is good for your heart, then it is probably good for your brain as well. That's why physical exercise is often linked to better brain health. By regularly doing activities that increase your heart rate and get your blood pumping more quickly, you can boost the amount of oxygen your brain receives. And that may lead to memory improvements and other cognitive benefits. It will also lower your risk of getting certain diseases that can cause memory loss.
9. Socialize and Have Fun
Being socially isolated is a known risk factor for memory decline. So making time to visit with friends, family, or anyone you care about regularly may be more important than you realize. After all, humans are naturally social creatures. Our brains are wired for communication and relationships. When you interact with other people in a positive way, you reap cognitive benefits. And when you laugh and engage in fun activities, you can maximize those benefits. That's why mentally sharp seniors often find opportunities to socialize and have fun by doing things such as:
- Joining clubs based on interests like reading, gardening, or doing crafts
- Making friends with other people who have a great sense of humor
- Hosting creative parties based on funny themes
- Traveling or going on fun day outings with joyful people
As recent years have shown us, staying connected with others through technology can be essential, especially when circumstances come up that prevent normal in-person contact. A tablet or cell phone for a senior could mean a significant difference in how much they see pictures of the grandkids, talk to a good friend, or play a game of cards over video chat with family.
Playing memory games can be a fun way to incorporate some brain training into your routine. Following are some good examples:
- Woodcut Memory Game: Like a traditional card match game, but with pairs of 26 intricate wood ring art prints on the cards instead. This makes for a quick, attractive, fun time for people of any age.
- Flower Families Go Fish: Similar to the simple Go Fish you likely learned as a kid, but with lovely floral artwork and an added twist: see if you can organize the flowers into their categories before the other players!
- Konario: This game gets all the senses involved in remembering and identifying different scents, tastes, sights, sounds, and tactile clues provided on and in individual cubes. Match pairs of cubes that each use different senses to hint at the secrets within using scratch and sniff stickers, fun-flavored candies, and other fun clues!
- Wowok Memory Matchstick Chess Game: This simple, fun, and tactile color-matching game uses colored wooden pegs in a small pegboard. The pegs are easy to manipulate for those who may have trouble holding and/or picking up cards and is great for most ages.
- Senior Moments Board Game: This is a great option for those with a sense of humor about aging! This game involves memorizing short lists of items that can be very entertaining, no matter your age.
- OUR MOMENTS Generations: This game may not be as much for exercising short-term memory, but it is a wonderful way to explore special times from the past with people you love. Each card has a conversation starter that can help families learn more about their parents and grandparents in a way that feels fun, interesting, and validating for the storyteller.
10. Consider Dietary Changes
Good nutrition is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle and, of course, a healthy brain. But this subject requires a disclaimer. After all, opinions vary greatly on what constitutes "good" nutrition. That's because scientific studies about nutrition often contradict each other and lead to unjustified hype or stigmatizing of particular foods or nutrients.
According to FiveThirtyEight, the problem is that many kinds of nutritional studies are inherently prone to statistical error and sloppy analysis, making them difficult or impossible to draw firm conclusions from. (They often rely on food questionnaires or diaries in which study participants have to track, remember, or self-report exactly what they've eaten over a certain period of time, which is far more difficult than you might imagine. People often lie about their diets or have trouble remembering or tracking what they've consumed.) Plus, many studies are funded by particular segments of the agricultural industry that have a vested interest in only promoting results that are in their favor. So, as a society, we frequently give more credence to nutritional studies than they actually merit.
All of that being said, most registered dietitians seem to agree that the best diet for a healthy brain and body is one that is based on:
- A colorful variety of fruits and vegetables
- Lean sources of protein
- Healthy fats (such as extra virgin olive oil)
- Whole (unrefined) grains
When it comes to protecting your memory, many experts also recommend drinking plenty of water and minimizing your consumption of fried foods, red meat, refined sugars, and heavily processed foods as much as possible. Having no more than one glass of red wine per day may also help. Here are a few other specific examples of foods that may provide memory or cognitive benefits:
- Cherries, blackberries, and blueberries
- Kale, spinach, and other dark leafy greens
- Coffee (in moderation)
- Dark chocolate (with at least 60-percent cocoa)
- Almonds and walnuts
- Pumpkin seeds
11. Determine if Supplements Could Help Your Overall Health
Optimally, we receive the vitamins and minerals we need from food (and, in the case of vitamin D, from sunshine). However, for various reasons, many people can't eat a diverse and complete enough diet to ensure an adequate amount of nutrients. This is where supplements can be helpful.
Although much more research is needed to confirm the effectiveness and safety of many "memory-enhancing" supplements, there are some well-established ways to boost your brain health. Overall health is of immeasurable value when it comes to memory. Asking your care provider for routine bloodwork to check your levels of essential vitamins and minerals is a good way to start. Then if you have deficiencies, your family doctor, naturopath or pharmacist can advise on the proper supplements to take. Low levels of vitamins B1, B12, and D are commonly associated with memory dysfunction, including certain types of dementia.
It's crucial to do some research (outside of the product's website and marketing information) when it comes to supplements with a combination of ingredients or those that haven't been proven effective for memory boosting. Many companies that make "memory enhancers" market their products to seniors without scientific evidence of safety or efficacy. Beware of medical-sounding jargon and claims of guaranteed memory improvement.
Additionally, the term "natural" on a product label or description doesn't necessarily equal safe or effective. In the U.S., supplement manufacturers don't receive much, if any, public oversight. That means a considerable number of people are buying pills, powders, and other types of supplements that don't contain what they say, have inconsistent amounts of ingredients, or even include dangerous substances that aren't on the label. Plus, if you take any medications, you could experience interactions between the drugs you're on and the supplements you're taking.
Below are a few examples of supplements that are relatively safe and vital to brain and memory function. (Always consult with your doctor and pharmacist before taking a new supplement.)
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Additionally, the following have shown some evidence for memory health, but should be explored with guidance from a professional:
- Ginkgo biloba
- Asian ginseng
- Bacopa monnieri
- Huperzine A
A study at UCLA demonstrated that Omega-3 fatty acids high in DHA specifically have been shown to significantly improve memory function in people with Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Additionally, omega-3s have shown to be protective of vascular health in general, reducing rates of cardiovascular disease. Brain and memory are heavily reliant on cardiovascular health, so this is an additional protective factor.
Omega-3 supplements are very safe, and available from fish oil or algae extract, depending on if you prefer an animal or non-animal source. A couple of examples of well-reviewed omega-3 supplements are Micro Ingredients' Omega-3 Fish Oil and for a vegan option, Qwell Omega-3.
A pill dispenser or a pill box with an alarm can be a good way to make sure you remember to take your medications and supplements properly
Are You Doing Enough to Keep Your Mind and Memory Sharp?
If you're concerned about your memory, help is clearly available. You and your doctor may be able to develop a plan for protecting or improving your brain health without spending a lot of money. So stay positive about your future and know that the mind you want might be achievable with just a few simple adjustments to your current lifestyle.