As people age, memory becomes less reliable. While the hippocampus, the area of the brain that builds memory, loses 5% of its nerve cells every decade, the aging process interferes with the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential to learning and memory.
Because of these processes, scientists used to think that an individual’s mental ability reached its apex in early adulthood, decreased from there, and could not return to its previous capacity. Recent research indicates that a process called brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, enables the adult brain to form new, memory-building neural networks. Brain flexibility plays a critical role in the development or decline of our brains. That means there are ways to increase brain power at any age.
Boost Your Brain and Memory
Neural connections can be forged or severed, and gray matter can thicken or shrink. These changes reflect transformations in our brains’ abilities.
Various researchers have suggested ways to improve your memory and concentration.
The favored tool of two researchers at Northcentral University is reading. Their studies indicate that the brain-stimulating activities derived from reading slow down cognitive decline in old age when people have participated in mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives, and provide a slower rate of decline in memory and other mental functions.
According to Dr. Wade Fish, director of Northcentral University’s Graduate School, “Reading expands a person’s appreciation toward other life experiences the reader is not personally experiencing, especially when reading topics that are not related to that reader’s job or lifestyle. I personally enjoy reading historical accounts. I recently read a book written by author David McCullough about the Wright Brothers and their work to bring about flight. Reading about it, makes me more curious about travel and how it has evolved. I also enjoy visiting places where historical events have occurred after reading about them and to ponder the challenges overcome and failures experienced before success was accomplished.”
Dr. Jennifer Duffy, Graduate School Dissertation Chair at NCU, believes that reading should be a lifelong habit that one starts in childhood and continues all through adulthood as a way of maintaining mental stimulation. She explains, “Reading is a fundamental skill needed to function in society. Words—spoken and written—are the building blocks by which a child’s mind grows. Reading is not only essential to a child’s verbal and cognitive development, but it also teaches the child to listen, develop new language, and communicate. Additionally, books open a child’s imagination into discovering his or her world.”
Mental stimulation is another way to increase brain power and improve your memory. Puzzles like Sudoku and crosswords may improve memory and delay brain decline, said Marcel Danesi, PhD, author of Extreme Brain Workout. At the Mayo Clinic, researchers suggest staying mentally active by engaging in cognitively challenging activities like doing crossword puzzles, playing bridge, taking alternate routes when driving, volunteering at a local school or community organization, and learning to play a musical instrument.
University of Memphis researchers have claimed that receiving musical training as a child prevents the deterioration of speech listening skills in later years and may keep away age-related cognitive decline.
In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience by University of Ontario and Stanford researchers, scientists uncovered a possible reason why playing a musical instrument might protect the brain. They found that “playing sounds on an instrument changes brain waves in such a way that rapidly improves listening and hearing skills.” The changed brain activity suggests that the brain can overcome disease or injuries that render a person unable to perform tasks.
A Swedish study determined that adults who learned a new language demonstrated better memory for people’s names, among other things. Any activity that is learned and practiced diligently can have the same effect, the researchers said.
Getting organized and not overstimulated is another key to keeping your memory working. People are more likely to forget things when their homes or offices are cluttered, their notes are in disarray, and their lives contain too many distractions. Don’t do too many things at once, jot down important tasks or meetings in a notebook or planner, and use tricks like mnemonics or favorite songs to remember dates and events.
Power Foods for the Brain
“You are what you eat” applies to your brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, power foods for the brain could be as important as power foods for the heart. The clinic recommends eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meat, and skinless poultry, and drinking less alcohol.
Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Memory Clinic, explained that memory superfoods such as antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, low-glycemic carbs, and anything with omega-3 fatty acids protect the brain from harmful free radicals. A study published in Neurology discovered that people who had low levels of omega-3s had brains that seemed to be 2 years older in MRI scans. The memory-enhancing diet from Dr. Small’s book The Memory Prescription, is like the Mediterranean diet, high on produce, legumes, nuts, and fish, and low on meat, because omega-6 fatty acids can cause brain inflammation, a possible underlying mechanism for Alzheimer’s. Refined sugars have a similar effect.
Exercise for the Brain
According to Mayo Clinic researchers, physical activity intensifies blood flow to the entire body, including the brain. In addition to the general benefits of exercise, the increased blood flow keeps the memory sharp.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) advocates a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or a weekly minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, such as jogging or working out in a gym. HHS recommends spreading the activity throughout the week and squeezing it into smaller segments if time does not permit a full workout.
Researchers from the University of California at Irvine recently discovered that a small amount of exercise could lead to big benefits for the brain. They asked one group of subjects to ride stationary bikes for six minutes, while another group simply watched. The active group performed much better on a memory test immediately afterwards. The researchers linked the boost to an exercise-induced brain chemical called norepinephrine, which has a great influence on memory.
UCLA’s Dr. Small believes that exercise is the best memory aid available and recommends 20 minutes of brisk walking daily. “It can increase your brain size, and the bigger your brain, the greater your capacity to remember,” he said.
Sleep Well, and Often!
Finally, Mayo Clinic researchers have said that sleep plays a critical role in memory recall. They suggest getting seven to nine hours of sleep per day.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that losing half a night’s rest—about three or four hours in just one night—can erode memory. Making up for the lost sleep afterwards can reverse the trend.
The journal Nature Neuroscience claimed that one mechanism of reducing decline in aging adults is to add more length and quality to sleep patterns. A deep sleep of eight hours or more moves memories from temporary to long-term storage, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one third of people get less than seven hours of sleep per night.
So…are there things people can do to prevent memory loss or even reverse it when it starts to happen? We’d say so! Try some of the above techniques to help improve brain power.