Seven Memory Tricks an Old Dog Can Learn

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? As short term memory starts to play tricks on you, it’s time to fight back with some tricks of your own.

What seniors sometimes lack in ability to recall recent information or actions, they can more than make up for with a little wisdom and a lot of resourcefulness. How many times have you lost your keys or your eyeglasses during the past year?

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If you’re like me, it’s happened more times than you can remember. But it’s never happened to me when I’ve remembered to put them in the places I’ve appointed for those objects when I’m not using them. If I get distracted while bringing groceries in from the car and leave my car keys in the kitchen, that could be bad news. Same thing if I set my glasses down for a second after using them to read a map or any print smaller than a sparrow. One of the Christmas gifts I received last month—from an acquaintance who noticed my tendency to lose reading glasses—was a wooden bear head with features that let it “wear” a pair of glasses. It’s cute and quite clever, really … well, except …

Uh, where did I put that bear head that holds my glasses?

I should have left it on the side table where I usually keep my glasses.

In any event, a little organization … resourcefulness … consistency … will go a long way toward keeping your memory sharp—or at least making it seem that way.

Joking aside, here are seven memory tricks you may find helpful:

1. Eat Right

Eating right doesn’t seem like much of a trick, but every indication is that sticking to a healthy diet should do the trick in promoting memory retention and combating memory loss.

What constitutes a healthy diet for your memory? According to the August 2012 issue of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, foods high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats seem to contribute to memory retention, while foods high in saturated and trans fats appear to contribute to deterioration of memory.

Harvard Women’s Health Watch specifically reports the results of a study conducted by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and published in May of 2012 in the journal Annals of Neurology. According to Health Watch, “Women in the study who ate the most saturated fats from foods such as red meat and butter performed worse on tests of thinking and memory than women who ate the lowest amounts of these fats.”

Health Watch goes on to recommend a Mediterranean-type diet with a high concentration of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil. According to Health Watch, the Mediterranean diet “has been linked to lower rates of both dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment (MCI)—the stage of memory loss that often precedes dementia.”

Many other sources echo Health Watch’s emphasis on a healthy diet as a key weapon in protecting your memory. A Mediterranean diet certainly isn’t the only way to go, but by all accounts a diet low in unhealthy cholesterol will go far in helping keep your memory sharp. Your brain needs plenty of oxygen, and oxygen is carried to the brain through the bloodstream. You don’t want anything interrupting your blood flow—and it’s no secret how cholesterol left unchecked can cause such interruptions … or worse.

Of course, although I’ve cited some information from Harvard Women’s Health Watch, everything here applies equally to men. A diet including plenty of leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts), berries, nuts, whole grains, and fish seems likely to bolster the memory of men as well as women.

2.   Get plenty of physical exercise.

If you’ve ever worked out with any consistency, you’ve probably noticed the physical activity seemed to elevate your general sense of awareness. At least, many people over the years have observed that exercise “picked them up” or seemed to heighten their senses. Some people comment that they never truly feel awake during the day until they’ve had their workout

If physical activity “picks people up,” why wouldn’t it do the same thing to their memory?

WebMD reports that a Columbia University study published back in 2007 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences involved putting running wheels in the cages of 23 mice. Apparently, those mice took to the wheels right away and started getting plenty of aerobic exercise.

An equal number of mice used in the study were in cages with no running wheels.

Over the next few weeks, researchers gave dye shots to mark new brain cells in memory-related areas of the mice’s brains and then checked the brains.

They found that the mice with the running wheels had an increase in brain cells and improved blood flow in memory-related areas of the brain. The mice without access to running wheels, meanwhile, had not shown any improvement at all.

The researchers then applied their study to humans—without the brain dye and with exercise options other than running in a wheel. Human volunteers were assigned hour-long workouts four times a week over a three-month period. WebMD reports that when volunteers were given tests after three months of working out (as opposed to tests given prior to their first workout), “Those follow-up tests showed an increase in blood flow to the memory-related brain area, better scores on the memory tests, and improvements in aerobic fitness.”

You probably could have deduced that on your own. It doesn’t take an Ivy League researcher to figure out that someone who gets out and swims, jogs, goes for long walks, or spends hours working in the garden probably has a sharper memory than someone sitting in front of the TV with moss growing on his or her behind.

3.  Don’t stop at physical exercise. Get plenty of mental exercise, too.

Is there something you’re interested in learning? If you live in a city or retirement community of any size, chances are there are plenty of study and learning opportunities you can take advantage of.

Would you like to learn a  language … play a musical instrument … take a course in history or political science … or join a Bible study group?

What’s the connection between taking a class and keeping your memory sharp?

Simple. An obvious goal in learning new things is to remember them. The whole process of learning and reviewing is sure to build your memory muscles and help keep your brain young.

You can’t totally reverse the effects of aging. As you age, there may be times you remember a phone number you had decades ago more easily than the phone number you have now. (I speak from experience.) You may stumble over the year when you’re writing the date on a check. (I speak from experience there, too.) And you may wince when you recall how many times you’ve gone to the drugstore during the past year to replace reading glasses you misplaced. (My friends at CVS will assure you that I speak once more from experience.)

You don’t need to take a class to exercise your memory. You can probably think of dozens of ways to incorporate memory exercises into your daily routine.

Forbes contributor Robert Glatter, MD, recommends doing the following memory exercise for four weeks:

“When you are ready to go to sleep, go over what you did that day from the time you got up until you get into bed. Start with the time you awoke, got out of bed, follow your entire day step by step until the time you went back to bed. Try to recall as much detail as possible, visualizing in your mind each and every step from beginning to end. In the beginning, you probably wont remember much detail, and you’ll probably move rapidly from task to task or think of the day in large periods of time.  However, try to slow down and remember as much as you can to take in as much detail as you can. With time and practice, you will notice significant improvement in your recall of events and details throughout the day.”

Dr. Glatter says that if you do this exercise daily you should notice an improvement in both short- and long-term memory by the end of the four weeks. Why not give it a try and let us know how it works?

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