A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Boosting Memory

Many of us were led to believe that growing old meant inevitably starting to lose one’s memory, but a top neurologist explains in his new book that memory decline is not inevitable, and there are steps older adults can take to protect and improve memory.  Memory, especially working memory, is critical and should be strengthened daily with exercises and activities.  

According to a recent New York Times Mind report, neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak’s new book, “The Complete Guide to Memory:  The Science of Strengthening Your Mind” highlights the lifestyle habits and mental exercises that can help improve memory and prevent decline in older age.  

Restak’s approach starts with a simple habit that many people fail to practice regularly.  To improve recall and long-term memory, it’s critical to pay close attention as information is being shared to properly encode the memory.   Try speaking to someone using your full attention, without distractions from other conversations (or your cellphone) and it may be easier to recall names or other pertinent information.  Using visualization to tie a mental image to a piece of information can also help solidify the memory. 

Instead of relying on lists or technology, challenging ourselves to use our memory in daily activities like grocery shopping, driving, or cooking can help boost memory and prevent cognitive decline.  Instead of automatically switching on GPS, navigating from memory has been found in a recent study to slow spacial memory decline. 

Playing memory games like 20 Questions or listing all the presidents, or prime ministers, in historical order can help exercise and strengthen working memory.  Reading novels more frequently can also engage recall – to follow the plot requires remembering what transpired earlier in the storyline.  Nonfiction does not demand the same level of engagement with the writing. 

Mood can also influence our memory function.  Depression can affect the types of memories an individual will recall.  If one is feeling sad, depressed or dark, they are more likely to remember sad events or memories.  Treating depression with medication or therapy often helps restore memory.  

If you are concerned about unusual memory loss in yourself or a loved one, talk with your doctor.