total recallCan't remember where you parked your car? Don't panic! Expert advice to keep your memory sharp.
Maybe you misplaced your keys again. Or you bumped into someone and couldn't match her face with a name. Is your memory going? When thoughts and information seem to vanish into thin air, it's natural to wonder if the next step is early-onset Alzheimer's. But we've queried the top memory experts and their message is simple: Relax.
"Memory isn't perfect even when it's working at 100 percent efficiency," says David Wolk, MD, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Memory Center. That means glitches like these tend to be normal, and if you're in your 40s or 50s the chances of having a serious problem are rare. Less than 5 percent of people get Alzheimer's before age 65, and it's even more unlikely prior to 50. These little slip-ups aren't even necessarily indications that you're headed for trouble in your 70s or 80s. Read on to learn why some forgetting is normal and what you can do to keep your mind as strong as possible.
YOUR MENTAL FILTERThere are many reasons why we forget at any age, though mix-ups are more common as you get older, says Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, founder of the Memory Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and coauthor of Intelligent Memory.
Remembering is a three-step process: You acquire new info, consolidate it (a process in which the brain stores short-term memories more permanently, like saving a file in your computer's hard drive), and then later recall it. The first part is simple, but from there it gets trickier because every day we're bombarded by tons of new info.
To prevent us from getting overwhelmed, the brain "edits" out things that it perceives as irrelevant, redundant or boring. In fact, without practice, more than 50 percent of new material often disappears from healthy minds within an hour.
Think of your brain as an email inbox that keeps overflowing with junk. If you didn't have a spam filter, you'd have a hard time getting to the most important messages. "There needs to be a balance of remembering and forgetting for memory to work properly," Dr. Gordon says.
Most of the time, this goes smoothly, but sometimes your brain accidentally edits out important things because you're distracted or because the information is too similar to other information in your head. For example, remembering where you parked your car will be harder if you're busy ruminating about an argument. And because you've parked your car thousands of times before, you're also forcing your brain to remember where you parked today and forget all those other times.
Ever find yourself heading upstairs only to wonder why you went up there? Research suggests that we can only hold a maximum of seven thoughts in our mind at one time. "Some would argue we can only hold on to one," says Dr. Gordon. The task you intended to accomplish-say, grabbing a cell phone from your dresser- probably didn't feel more significant than whatever else was on your mind.
CATEGORIES & CONNECTIONSAnother key reason we forget is that the brain likes to organize information by putting it into categories so that facts relate to each other. That's helpful in certain situations-such as when you remember the address 1776 4th Street because it makes you think of Independence Day-but it's also the reason why online passwords are prone to drift into the mental fog.
"You code them so nobody can figure them out, so you remove the associations that would normally jog your memory," says Mark Wheeler, PhD, associate professor of psychology in the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. Even if you use something familiar, like a pet's name, many sites require you to add a number, and remembering that you linked Fluffy's name with your daughter's birthday isn't always easy.
Proper names are also tough. Even trying to connect a name to a category can lead us down the wrong path. "When my mother occasionally calls her oldest grandchild by my name, she isn't forgetting who he is; she's thinking in categories, because I'm also an oldest child," says Dr. Gordon.
Lack of connection makes it especially difficult to remember an event in the future-what researchers call prospective memories- whether it 's turning on the slow cooker, picking up your spouse at the airport or buying a birthday card. "It hasn't happened yet, so there's no link to an actual experience to fix it in your mind," says Dr. Wheeler.
PRESERVING YOUR AGING BRAINAs we get older, all these issues can worsen. "The brain doesn't literally run out of space, but it becomes less efficient and less able to hold on to as much information," says Dr. Wolk. Beginning in your 30s, two areas of the brain that handle most of your memory processing (the frontal lobes and the hippocampus) gradually begin to shrink. The pathways between nerve cells also start to fray and wither, and messenger chemicals (such as dopamine) that help you encode and retrieve memories start to decline.
To some extent these changes are unavoidable, but you may be able to slow them down- or at least compensate for them- by making certain lifestyle changes. The key ones to focus on:
STRESS LESS You get nervous, you get tongue-tied. Even momentary stress can cause you to lose your train of thought. The reason: Stress hormones such as cortisol interfere with chemicals that brain cells use to communicate, diverting energy from the brain to your muscles. That also makes it more difficult to form new memories, so if you meet someone at a stressful time, you're less likely to remember her name later.
If you're chronically stressed (you often feel overwhelmed and may experience anxiety symptoms like a racing heart and difficulty focusing), that may also predispose you to more serious memory trouble. Women who reported high levels of stress in their 40s and 50s were more likely to suffer from dementia when they got older, according to a 2010 Swedish study. You can help get stress in check by making lists to organize yourself, delegating tasks to others to lighten your load, and taking a few minutes each day to do some deep breathing (research shows it reduces levels of stress hormones) or pursue a hobby you enjoy.
MOVE MORE Moderate exercise such as walking 40 minutes a day three times a week increases the size of the hippocampus in the brain and boosts your body's production of a molecule involved in learning and memory, according to new research at the University of Pittsburgh. If that sounds like a lot of time, don't worry.
One study found that middle-aged women who got moderate activity for just 20 minutes twice a week had a 52 percent lower risk of developing dementia later in life. And you can rack up activity throughout the day (walk to do your errands instead of driving, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and so on).
MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY Not getting enough sleep makes it difficult for your brain to pay attention to new info and remember it, according to research on people whose shuteye is disrupted by sleep apnea (a condition in which you stop breathing for several seconds at a time during the night). Sleep also appears to playa major role in storing memories. Researchers think that deep, dreaming-stage sleep is especially helpful for locking in facts and "procedural" memories, such as how to play the piano or ride a bike.
Most of us need at least seven hours of sleep per night. If you haven't been getting enough, try turning in 10 minutes earlier each night until you reach your goal. And if you frequently toss and turn-or are waking up in the morning after seven or more hours and still feeling groggy- see your doctor. You may have sleep apnea or another sleep disorder and need treatment.
EAT YOUR VITAMINS Research has suggested that higher levels of antioxidants in the blood-especially vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene-are associated with better memory performance in older people. Antioxidants may help by reducing cell damage in the brain and improving communication between neurons. Load up on them by eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, oranges and red bell peppers.
Also consider getting more vitamin B,2, which promotes healthy nerve function and can affect memory. "It's not uncommon to lack B'2 as you age, starting as young as your 30s," says Charles Bernick, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. A 3-oz serving of sockeye salmon, rainbow trout or sirloin steak meets or exceeds the recommended daily amount. Fortified breakfast cereal, milk, eggs and Swiss cheese also provide significant amounts of B12.
STAY AT A HEALTHY WEIGHT Obesity has been linked to memory problems, possibly because being overweight probably means you're not eating well or exercising enough, which impacts your memory, says John Gunstad, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Kent State University. One study published in the journal Neurology found that people who were overweight or obese at midlife were 80 percent more likely to develop dementia later on than those with a normal body mass index. "Even being mildly overweight-having a body mass index over 2S-can interfere with your ability to learn new information and recall it later," says Dr. Gunstad.
If you're obese (your body mass index is 30 or more), the danger is even greater, most likely because many obese people have weight-related conditions that interfere with blood flow to the brain, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and sleep apnea. The good news is that losing weight helps dramatically: A recent study led by Dr. Gunstad found that people who had weight-loss surgery t ended to have improved memory and concentration 12 weeks after their operations.
YOU MUST REMEMBER THISSome memory problems seem to plague just about everyone. Here's how to stop crucial info from disappearing.
WHERE YOU PARKED YOUR CAR
Step one: Pay attention. If you don't pause for a moment to acknowledge where you're parked, there's less chance of recalling it later. To give your brain a head start, always try to park in the same general location, such as the end of the row straight out from the store entrance. "In a garage, I always try to park near a pillar," says Dr. Gordon. Not possible to park in your default zone? Say the location out loud ("row C, third spot from the end"); when you reach the door of your destination, say it again. If there's no sign, look for something else to latch on to- maybe you parked in line with a bike rack or a store sign.
"Consciously noting where you are and repeating it helps lock in the memory," says Dr. Bernick. Speaking the words activates areas of the brain that process speech and control the facial muscles you need for speaking and the more parts of the brain you engage, the more likely it is that they'll work together to remember.
Finally, turn around as you walk away from your car to plant a stronger visual memory in your mind. "The brain is exceptionally good at remembering sights," says Dr. Wheeler. If you still feel you can't rely on your brain, use your cell phone to take a picture that includes details like a sign showing your row number or your car 's position relative to a building.
Think of a phrase or song that's easy to remember' and use the first letters of each word to create a basic password. For example, the words "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss," become YMRTAKIJAK. If the website requires a number, add one that's meaningful-1942, for example, the year that lyric appeared in Casablanca. Extra letters can tag the password to specific sites, such as "FB" for Facebook or "NF" for Netflix.
Still can't keep them straight? Web-based services like RoboForm (roboform.com; free-$29.95 per year) and Password Safe (passwordsafe.sourceforge.net; free) can store all your passwords in one place. Or try a low-tech option: Write down all your passwords and store them in a locked journal or tape the list to the bottom of your dresser drawer.
NAMES OF PEOPLE
On your way to a gathering, think ahead to who might be there. "You'll have a better chance of remembering names if you rehearse them and 'pre activate' connections in your mind," Dr. Gordon says. If you bump into someone you weren't expecting to see, start a conversation to ferret out information that could jog your memory, like what she does or whom she's married to-anything that might turn on a light bulb in your head.
When you first meet someone, try to lock in the new name by asking questions to build associations. "Some people find that silly or odd connections are easiest to recall," Dr. Gordon says. "If you were meeting me, you might say, 'Good to meet you, Dr. Gordon, are you related to the Gordon's gin people?' and make a joke to help the name sink in. Politicians use this technique all the time." Or try to link the name with a visual idea your brain can latch on to. When meeting a Smith, for example, you could think of a blacksmith. If nothing that clever comes to mind, simply try repeating the name a few times during the conversation or asking the person to clarify the spelling ("Is that K-A-R-E-N or C-A-R-Y-N?") to reinforce it.
WHY YOU WENT UPSTAIRS
Convince your brain that your task is important before you head up the stairs to do it. "Just thinking to yourself I will remember engages brain mechanisms that will, in fact, help you remember," Dr. Gordon says. Mentally talk through why it 's important: Focusing on the logic behind an action helps your brain realize that this is a thought worth prioritizing. For example, instead of just saying to yourself, "I need to grab a sweater," tell yourself, "I need to grab a sweater before I leave in case it's chilly tonight."
If that's not enough, scrawl a pertinent word on a scrap of paper. "The act of writing reinforces memory," Dr. Gordon says. Even if you don't bring the paper with you, writing by hand taps motor systems in the brain that can make information easier to retrieve. Or carry a reminder in your hand -a charger cord, for example, to remember you're going for your phone.
WHAT TO BUY AT THE GROCERY STORE
For those times when you think of a few items you need on your way home (and want to make sure you actually leave the store with them), mentally group them in categories. Instead of just thinking "I need apples, broccoli, ice cream and frozen waffles," think "I need produce: apples and broccoli; and freezer items: ice cream and waffles." Also visualize yourself walking through the different departments, smelling and touching the items you need, and slipping them into crinkly bags. Engaging all of your senses helps activate different areas of your brain to help you better remember details.
YOUR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY
Go ahead and make a reservation for a celebratory dinner. Research suggests that you're more likely to remember a combination of an event and an activity when you double the number of things associated with the event- and remembering one will make you think of the other. But relying solely on your memory here is often a recipe for failure (and an angry spouse), so be sure to jot a note on your calendar.
Free smartphone apps like reQall for the iPhone will sync an important date with your digital calendar, then send you timely reminders. Free online services like BirthdayAlarm.com provide handy e-cards along with reminders of important dates.
serious signsLITTLE SLIP-UPS ARE NORMAL, BUT THESE COULD BE CAUSE FOR CONCERN:
- Needing the same information repeated over and over, such as asking multiple times where you're going during a short car ride.
- Trouble making plans or solving problems, such as not wanting to host a holiday meal you've always planned because you have a hard time coordinating all the necessary tasks and errands.
- Difficulty doing familiar things like following a favorite recipe, driving to a well-known location or remembering the rules to a game you've played for years.
- Losing track of time or place-for example, not remembering the season or where you are.
- Problems understanding visual images or spatial relationships-say, catching your reflection in the mirror and thinking someone else is in the room or getting into multiple fender benders because you can't judge depth and distance. " People with Alzheimer's often complain that something is wrong with their vision," says Beth Kallmyer, senior director of constituent services at the Alzheimer's Association.
- Struggles with conversation, such as not following what people are saying, or stopping in the middle of talking and not knowing how to continue. "It's different from losing your train of thought," says Kallmyer. " Most people can get back on track when people give them a cue. People with Alzheimer's completely lose the entire conversation."
- Losing things or putting items in odd places (like finding your cell phone in the refrigerator).
- Lapses in judgment, such as giving large amounts of money to telemarketers.
- Memory loss that disrupts your daily life: needing to ask family members to help with things you used to handle on your own (like doing laundry or remembering to eat meals).
- Withdrawing from hobbies or social activities.
- Personality changes such as increased fearfulness or being suspicious of others. If you (or a loved one) have any of these symptoms, see a doctor. There's no blood test for Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, but your doctor may ask you questions designed to reveal mental impairment; check the health of your nervous system by testing functions like reflexes, balance, eye movement and speech; and/or order a brain scan such as an MRI. She may also want to screen you for thyroid problems and depression, since those conditions have been linked to memory loss.
memory mythsDOING CROSSWORD PUZZLES IS THE BEST WAY TO STAY SHARP
Puzzles can't hurt, but they won't necessarily help you remember your coworker's wife's name. A recent study found that people who played memory games for six weeks got better at those games, but they didn't fare any better on general tests of mental function than those in the control group. True, mental stimulation is essential, but there's nothing magical about puzzles. Reading novels or spending time with friends is just as good, says Dr. Wolk.
BETTER MEMORY=BIGGER BRAIN
Some people naturally have a stronger memory, but brain size isn't the reason, says Dr. Wolk. "It's likely due to a better organization of connections between the nerve cells." Starting with a strong memory may help your recall stay stronger longer, but eventually everyone will have some decline.
MEMORY ONLY GETS WORSE WITH AGE
While many aspects of memory do falter with age, some actually improve. "Vocabulary increases, and the ability to synthesize different concepts improves because your wealth of knowledge allows you to make better connections," says Dr. Wolk. For example, older doctors often become better at diagnosing illness not because they can dredge up data from old medical textbooks but because a multitude of experiences give them a gut feeling they're on the right track.
EASY MEMORY BOOST:~COFFEE!~
A British study found that drinking coffee improves memory in older people. (Tea doesn’t seem to have as strong an effect.) Coffee may also help control blood sugar and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes-which may help protect memory function.
The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon may keep memory strong by protecting the connections between neurons in the brain, according to UCLA researchers. That’s one reason experts believe that people who eat a Mediterranean diet seem to have a lower risk of dementia.
Kids who eat a morning meal do better on school tests than those who skip breakfast, according to research from Tufts. For best results, reach for a combo of protein, fiber and whole grains-which you can get in a bowl of oatmeal or cereal with milk topped with berries and/or nuts.