Aging brings many unwelcome but normal challenges to health and fitness, including possible lapses in memory. But some such problems can be the result of common behaviors you can alter to improve your brain’s ability to remember things, and retrieve them more easily.
Here, courtesy Harvard Health Publications, are six common contributors to memory impairment.
Being tired can dull your memory, and although everybody flags occasionally, persistent, serious fatigue is not normal and could signal a medical condition that needs a doctor’s attention. But if your fatigue falls more toward the annoying than debilitating side, ask yourself: Am I getting enough sleep?
There’s no question that lack of restful sleep can make you more forgetful. If you can figure out the nature of your sleep disturbance, you might be able to fix it. See Patrick’s newsletter, “The Struggle to Sleep” to pin down your problem and how to resolve it. If you sleep an adequate period of time but still feel tired and unrefreshed the next day, discuss it with your doctor.
Some people fail to eat enough protein, which also can cause weakness and fatigue. If you’re feeling tired, make sure your diet is balanced.
Certain drugs can affect memory, especially those that cause sedation. Common medications that affect memory include tranquilizers, antidepressants, drugs taken for urinary problems and over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids.
If you take any of these and are having memory problems, speak to your doctor about adjusting the dose or changing drugs. Don’t take OTC sleep aids more than three consecutive days.
Physical activity that gets your heart pumping and oxygen-rich blood flowing to your brain helps you to be more alert and mentally sharper. Preliminary studies show that regular, moderate exercise stimulates brain regions involved in memory function. People who exercise regularly commonly report less memory loss as they age, but research on this topic is ongoing.
Walking, dancing, gardening, cycling, swimming … anything that elevates your heart rate and doesn’t hurt or make you feel woozy is good for you. Just don’t work out too heartily in the evening, as the energy boost can interfere with your ability to get to sleep.
Moods can affect body functions in many ways, including impairing memory. Persistent negative stress or anxiety affects memory because it compromises with your ability to concentrate and solidify new information and skills into memory.
Sometimes stress must be treated medically, but run-of-the-mill difficulties often respond to exercise, meditation, massage and simple social interaction with friends that isn’t locked into rigid schedules or activities. Talking with a friend who’s good at listening and not judgmental can alleviate stress and, therefore, boost memory.
Everyone occasionally gets the blues. Such transient gloom doesn’t normally affect memory, so if you’ve been feeling low for too long, you might need further evaluation.
Memory impairment is one common symptom of clinical depression, along with sadness, lack of motivation, poor concentration, sleep disruptions and diminishing or no pleasure in things that you ordinarily enjoy. If any of these signs of serious depression has lasted more than a couple of weeks, talk to a doctor.
Drinking reduces memory performance. It’s that simple. And, as you age, your tolerance for alcohol often diminishes. If you have more than one drink of spirits or more than two beers in a day, and you’re concerned about your memory, cut back. If, after a couple of weeks on a reduced alcohol diet you don’t see a difference, eliminate it altogether, or, if you’re accustomed to imbibing every day, even a little, cut back to once or twice a week.
Dr. David Hsu, a geriatric psychiatrist with the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told Health Publications that simply perceiving a change in your ability to remember something or recall it on demand might be due to an age-appropriate slowdown in thinking speed. If you’re past middle age, he advises giving yourself a break, and taking a little more time to recall facts and to commit new ones to memory.
“Getting frustrated with memory slips won’t make them stop,” according to the Health Publications, and “it could make it harder to remember things.
Here are Harvard’s top tips for aiding memory recall:
- Follow a routine. Leave your wallet, keys, phone, glasses, etc., in the same places every day.
- Write it down. Use a pocket notebook or small digital voice recorder to take the burden off your brain to remember details, especially names and dates.
- Do one thing at a time. Multitasking compromises your ability to do anything well because the brain really does only one thing at a time. Overtasking leads to forgetfulness.
- Seek silence. Noisy or busy environments can make it harder to understand, memorize and recall new information. (Some people are sensitive to smell as well, and strong or certain odors interfere with their brain memory function.)
- Learn it twice. Memories become more durable when you review new information.
- Create cues. One example of this memory trick is to put your prescriptions next to your toothbrush to prompt you to take morning or evening medications.