How to improve your memory

How will you avoid your next embarrassing social gaff?

• We all get a little forgetful as we age – that’s normal isn’t it?
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• Here’s how to improve your memory

Just occasionally I forget someone’s name, a significant date, or even why I went to the shops in the first place.

This bit of absent mindedness isn’t unusual – how many times does that happen to you, and is it disturbing if it should become more frequent?

In these circumstances we all start to think of the scary reasons, don’t we?

With a Dad suffering from Alzheimer’s disease I’m already there ahead of you.

This horrifying condition is characterised by significant memory loss, to the point where the sufferer forgets the names of even their family, let alone their friends.

Of course there is always the risk that we may develop such a severe condition, but memory loss is also just part of getting older and can be helped without the fear that you have symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

So, if your slightly diminished powers of recall aren’t due to dementia or Alzheimer’s, why do we begin to suffer lapses, especially as we age?

It might be tempting to think that it is because we are filling up our available storage, however, we only use a fraction of the available processing and storage capacity in our brains during life.

Others may try to convince you that a drink or two, past indiscretions with herbal substances or a few bangs on the noggin at the bottom of a scrum are to blame – causing damage to the grey cells.

Once again though we have plenty to spare and unless we are participating in a lifestyle that would make Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones of course!) blush, we shouldn’t use them up too quickly.

The issues seem to involve two functions in our brains and the communication pathways we use to move information around.

I’m not going to claim to be a neuroscientist, but I will try to simplify this process as far as I can – indeed just how Dad’s consultant did for us when he was diagnosed.

In our daily lives we see, hear, smell and touch many things that get stored as experiences in a local filing cabinet.

This cabinet is a bit haphazard in its organisation, but allows us to grab information back quickly.

Over time this short term memory gets transferred to a much bigger and better organised archive which operates really well – just a bit slowly.

Imagine the amount of data stored from your very earliest memory to what you’re doing right now – every single thing is in there, and to get it back your brain needs to find it in amongst everything else.

Even this deep storage system has some bits that come to hand much easier, so we can access even very early memories if we deem them important enough.

Then the other component is like a series of tubes that connect all of these storage areas and allow information to zip around quickly.

This bit puts me in mind of one of the big stores we used to go into in Swansea when I was little.

The cashiers took your money when you paid and put it into a little box, which they then loaded into a tube.

By vacuum pressure the box whizzed off to a central accounts team who took your payment then placed the change in the box and sent it back to the till for you.

As a kid I was fascinated by the sound of the boxes rattling along the tubes which were slung overhead.

If you put the transferrable storage and the intricate communicating systems together you have the vague outline of how our memory works.

Problems occur when we don’t make full use of all of these components, allowing our short term memory to be clogged up by not putting stuff into storage, then letting the archive get too messy to find anything – and finally not using all of the available tubes to push information backwards and forwards.

So what we need is a bit of help in polishing all of this up – and that is what I have discovered the secret of doing.
Read on to find out more.

Can a few simple actions improve your memory?

As mentioned earlier my father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and memory training is something I regularly research as a result.

There is a very good article on the BBC website about how scientists are working on various processes for improving memory and even counteracting Alzheimer’s, but even this is a little complicated to put into action at home for Dad.

I have discovered that there are three components to build a memory in our brains beginning with creating it in the first place.

his is a process of neural links in the brain, a digital image for want of a better explanation, but this is a fleeting and reversible procedure.

Therefore the brain has to consolidate the memory by replaying the ‘image’ to make the connections stronger, which often happens when we sleep.

The final stage happens when we recall the memory, often when we talk about it or think about it. This further strengthens the connections.

It is this final stage that we associate with memory, and the bit we lose due to Alzheimer’s.

So, here are a few ways to improve each of those stages;

1. Eat blueberries and take fish oil supplements or omega 3 rich foods.

Blueberries are known for being high in flavanoids, which appear to strengthen existing connections in the brain. That could explain why they’re beneficial for long-term memory.

Several studies have shown that fish oil, and omega 3 rich foods improve the function of the brain making it easier for the important synaptic connections to occur.

2. Drink coffee.

Researchers at John Hopkins University published their findings which showed that caffeine enhances certain memories at least up to 24 hours after it is consumed.

But avoid drinking too close to bedtime as it can also interfere with sleep, and that is important as…

3. Get more sleep.

Since sleep is when most of our memory consolidation process occurs, it makes sense that without enough sleep we’re going to struggle to remember the things we’ve learned. Even a short nap can improve your memory recall.

4. Exercise the body.

Studies in both rat and human brains have shown that regular exercise can improve memory recall. Fitness in older adults has even been proven to slow the decline of memory without the aid of continued regular exercise.

5. Meditate to let the brain settle

Short-term or working memory is something we use every day, and it makes our lives a lot easier when it’s stronger.

For most adults, the maximum we can hold in our working memory is about seven items, but if you’re not quite using your working memory to its max capacity, meditation is one thing you can try to strengthen it.

These are all activities I get Dad doing and he often says I need to stop researching as I keep finding more things to do!
But to me (and please pardon the bad pun here) it’s a real no-brainer that I want to try to keep him as well as possible.

Alzheimer’s support information

One thing I would never joke about is the severity of declining memory related to more serious conditions.

If you are worried about Alzheimer’s please see the list of symptoms below, and contact your doctor as soon as possible if you feel they are relevant to you.

1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty in completing familiar tasks at home, work or leisure
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. Problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgement
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood or personality
(Source: Alzheimer’s Association)

If you are worried about Alzheimer’s and would prefer to talk to someone other than your doctor, you can call the Alzheimer’s Association helpline on 0300 222 11 22 or click here for their online support