You forget a new neighbor’s name, a doctor’s appointment, or an item you meant to pick up at the store. These minor memory lapses are common and usually not indicative of any major decline in brain function. But they can be frustrating, to say the least.
And while there may always be a name, date or other detail that slips your mind, there are some effective strategies that may at least improve your recall. Among the keys to enhancing your memory is to improve your concentration when learning new information and to associate that new info with other things that can help you retrieve it later, explains neurologist Alessandro Biffi, MD, director of the Aging and Brain Health Research Group at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“There are a number of techniques that can be useful, mostly revolving around maximizing attention when trying to acquire new information, and leveraging multiple sensory modalities, such as vision, hearing, and musical perception to strengthen associations,” Dr. Biffi explains.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Pass along new information to someone else. By “teaching” another person, you are helping to reinforce that knowledge in your memory.
- Get enough sleep each night. Numerous studies have shown that storing and recalling newly acquired information is easier after you have slept.
- Meditate. Short-term memory may improve if you take a few minutes every day to relax through quiet meditation. Also, learning to reduce your stress may make it easier for you to recall information.
- Exercise daily. Not only will this improve circulation—a vital part of healthy brain function—but physical activity may also help you control your weight. Research has shown an association between obesity and lower performance on tests of cognition and memory.
A set of effective strategies Dr. Biffi advocates goes by the acronym GULP. It stands for Get it / Use it / Link it / Picture it:
- Get it. Try to pay as much attention as possible when acquiring new information, and engage where possible with multiple senses. For example, listen to a person, but also visualize a scene containing the information of interest.
- Use it. Where possible try to review the material immediately; at a minimum consider repeating it to others to solidify it. Making notes on new memory information being acquired is helpful in the future, but also engages visual and motor memory in the act of noting down reminders.
- Link it. Seek to associate new information with existing information in meaningful ways, for example by identifying similarities of “sound alike” situations. Acronyms can also be helpful.
- Picture it. Focus specifically on associating a mental visual image to new information being acquired. It’s important to try and picture vivid images, with multiple colors, and if possible enacting a brief scene in motion (rather than a static picture). For example, a mental image of one’s path through the grocery store filled with brightly colored items on our “to buy” list is likely to be of greater benefit than seeking to recall a mental image of a grocery list itself.
Practice Makes… Pretty Good
Even with extra effort, you may still encounter a memory lapse now and then. Dr. Biffi says it’s important to keep trying. “The visualization strategies take some practice and patience, because we tend to rely on visual imagery containing complex information, such as a grocery list in a ‘simple’ but information-heavy and unappealing format the mental image of a long list with multiple items rather than a complex mental picture of the situation to recall like our path through the store,” he explains.
Dr. Biffi adds that you will need patience and time to master the art of using mental imagery to bolster memory. At the same time you should also continue using reminders and other physical memory aiding techniques that you find effective, he suggests. Memory isn’t always consistent, so don’t get too frustrated if you also still rely on your calendar and sticky notes to help keep you on track.
You don’t need to wait until you’re drawing a blank when you see that new neighbor again to start working on memory enhancement. If your memory is reliable now, get in the habit of using one or more of the GULP techniques so that when trouble does start, you’ll have a well-practiced method to help you.
“These and other strategies will benefit individuals with memory problems in general, regardless of severity,” Dr. Biffi says. “Once mastered, these strategies will benefit individuals regardless of whether they will develop severe cognitive impairment or not. I would therefore encourage everyone to try and apply these techniques in their daily life.”
If You’re Still Struggling
There are many possible explanations for memory lapses that do not respond to augmentation techniques, Dr. Biffi says. “Stress, whether it’s emotional, societal, interpersonal or biological, is certainly a primary factor,” he says. “It should be explored accordingly by individuals, seeking support and counseling if warranted.”
In other situations, specific medical conditions are to be blamed, such as sleep problems, nutritional and vitamin deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, chronic pain and other medical conditions. Discussing your memory performance concerns and identifying next steps with your primary care doctor becomes imperative.
“I tend to think of memory performance in terms of ‘supply and demand,’” Dr. Biffi says. “By the very nature of our brains, we have a limited capability to form new memories. Genetics, education, training and memory techniques can enhance our capacity, but it’s not, and never will be, unlimited. Our societal-driven expectation is that we can continue to pile more and more memory tasks on our brains, without ever running out of ‘storage space’ and assimilation capacity. This is simply not the case, and as we age our abilities decline in subtle but perceptible ways. We therefore need to be cognizant of these biological facts, and approach memory aging from a different, more respectful angle as individuals and as a society. Only from a perspective of balance between memory supply and demand, can we then move on to maximize memory performance in healthy and proactive ways.”