If you want to add memory to a computer, you can just hook it up to an external hard drive. Improving your own memory isn’t so simple, though. Everyone could benefit from a better memory, whether you’re a student aiming for a high GPA or a senior citizen avoiding Alzheimer’s disease. So thankfully, even if we can’t plug storage devices into our brains yet, we can take a number of steps to improve our memory for now and the future.
Healthy Habits for Brains of All Ages
The first thing to remember is that “the mind is a muscle,” as a choreographer named Yvonne Rainer once said. With any muscle, you either use it or lose it. You could work out for years to have the brawniest body the world has ever known, but if you stop exercising, you’ll see your mighty muscles slowly deteriorate. Such is the case with the brain. If you work it out during your years of school or years of work but then stop engaging in thinking-oriented tasks, then you can expect your mind—and therefore your memory—to deteriorate.
So it’s important to keep your mind working, even if you’re retired or enjoying a long summer vacation. Heather Graham of Yahoo’s healthy living section suggests activities such as crossword puzzles, writing, reading, chess, or even strategic video games. An especially effective way for retired people to stay active is through regular volunteer work, which benefits others as well as the individual in ways beyond just memory. Even simple things like engaging conversations can keep the brain’s juices pumping.
Since your brain is connected to the rest of your body, Graham pointed out that many other basic healthy habits can keep your memory functioning properly too. A healthy heart is particularly important. “High blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which can destroy your arteries and cause heart disease, heart attack and stroke, have been linked to Alzheimer’s,” she wrote. “In a postmortem study of Alzheimer’s patients, 80 percent of those patients examined had cardiovascular disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.”
Keeping excess fat away can also keep forgetfulness at bay, according to research performed by Dr. Gary Small of the UCLA Longevity Center. He stated that being overweight doubles a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s, and being obese quadruples it.
Exercise in and of itself actually helps your memory too, as The New York Times reported. Scientists at the University of British Columbia found that exercise, whether lifting weights or walking, did not just slow down the memory deterioration of elderly women, it actually improved their memory’s functioning. Plus, The Journal of Pediatrics reported that exercise can boost academic performance in young people. So working out helps you out no matter your age, and it’s never too late to get started. Just be warned, though, that the University of British Columbia saw no brain boosts in individuals who performed only simple stretches.
A healthy diet is another ingredient to a keen memory. Some foods are particularly helpful for the brain. According to the ABC News website, “Harvard researchers found that women who said they ate more blueberries and strawberries were more likely to display less-rapid cognitive deterioration as they aged.”
The American Academy of Neurology is also big on foods containing omega-3 fatty acids since they can help keep your brain big. Research performed by Dr. James V. Pottala of the University of South Dakota found that individuals who consumed plenty of omega-3 fatty acids “had a 2.7 percent larger volume in the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays an important role in memory,” as stated in the study’s press release. The people with plenty of omega-3 intake delayed the typical brain cell loss that comes with aging by about two years. So while fish oils may not cure or prevent Alzheimer’s, they can at least delay its onset. The American Academy of Neurology recommends fish, chicken, nuts, and supplements as ways of getting omega-3 fatty acids into your system.
Even though research on it is still controversial, caffeine might actually enhance your memory, albeit in moderate doses taken at the right time. Earlier this year, Dr. Michael Yssa of Johns Hopkins University published a study in which he and his team showed two groups of people some photos and then asked the participants to identify those pictures again 24 hours later. The group of people that took a 200mg caffeine pill after seeing the images the first time were better able to differentiate between the real photos from close look-alikes the following day. So, a cup or two of coffee after taking in important information could help your brain retain it. However, keep in mind that too much caffeine can make you jittery or interfere with your sleep, which in turn would negate its positive effects on memory.
Surprisingly, a healthy diet of music could help your memory as well. The Boston Children’s Hospital performed some brain scans and found that children and adults with musical training showed enhanced activity in brain areas devoted to executive functioning. “Executive functions are the high-level cognitive processes that enable people to quickly process and retain information, regulate their behaviors, make good choices, solve problems, plan, and adjust to changing mental demands,” according to an American Association for the Advancement of Science report on the study.
Since these abilities are so closely linked to academic performance, the lead investigators in the study point out that these results are a sign that schools should think twice before cutting their music programs. The investigators also encourage researchers to explore whether or not musical training could help senior citizens or individuals with ADHD to maintain their executive functioning skills.
Also, the Academy of Finland found that listening to music can stimulate the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays a big role in memory. So perhaps regular intake of music can even help those of us who aren’t so talented playing instruments ourselves.
Besides, music is one way a person can reduce their stress levels, which is important since anxiety has been shown to harm memory. Cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, tends to impair learning abilities and memory, especially short-term memory. Researchers at the Loma Linda University made this connection particularly clear in a recent experiment involving healthy senior citizens. The investigators showed one group of participants a funny video for 20 minutes and then tested their memory against participants who didn’t watch the video. Those who saw the humorous video scored better on the memory tests, in part because their cortisol levels were lower.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Lee Berk, is actually a humor researcher because, when you get right down to it, laughter is serious business. He noted that laughter decreases cortisol levels and blood pressure while boosting the immune system. So even though it’s easier said than done, “don’t worry, be happy” is a valuable piece of advice.
Learning to let go of stress can also help you sleep better, which is convenient since good sleep is yet another means of improving your memory. A study performed by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine demonstrated how sleep facilitates learning and long-term memory storage in the brain. “We’ve known for a long time that sleep plays an important role in learning and memory. If you don’t sleep well you won’t learn well,” Dr. Wen-Biao Gan told the university’s official website. However, the senior investigator’s research revealed what he calls “the underlying physical mechanism responsible for this phenomenon.” Sleep helps neurons to form connections on dendritic branches, which may facilitate long-term memory. Even if you can’t remember the details, at least remember the bottom line—good sleep equals good memory.
Memory Lessons for Students
Good sleep habits can also benefit college students aiming for high GPAs. Once you’ve been sucked into college life, there are all sorts of obstacles to good sleep—parties, loud dorms, boatloads of work, stress and more. However, these hurdles are worth jumping over. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recently presented research by the University of St. Thomas that demonstrated “college students who are poor sleepers are much more likely to earn worse grades and withdraw from a course than healthy-sleeping peers.” In fact, sleep problems have roughly the same influence on a college student’s GPA as binge drinking and marijuana use do. The research also showed that poor sleep hygiene is especially harmful to freshmen’s academic performance.
According to Dr. Roxanne Prichard, a psychology professor who co-authored the study, these findings suggest that colleges should take sleep problems more seriously. “Sleep problems are not systematically addressed in the same way that substance abuse problems are,” she said. “For colleges and universities, addressing sleep problems early in a student’s academic career can have a major economic benefit through increased retention.”
An earlier investigation by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that poor sleep hygiene in high school students can hurt their GPAs as well. So regardless of how far along you are in your education, catching some Z’s could help you get A’s. Rather than just settle for life as the typical sleep-deprived student, maybe you should study good sleep habits and find ways to integrate them into your life.
While you’re at it, you might as well integrate meditation into your routine too. According to research published on George Mason University’s official website, meditating before a lecture can help students remember more of the material. Finding a quiet spot on a college campus isn’t easy, but a little meditation can have big benefits. Even just six minutes can improve your learning, according to the study. So, meditation training could be particularly useful for students who are easily swayed by stress or distractions.
Once you’re listening to the lecture, put your laptop away and pull out a good ol’ fashioned writing stick and paper to take notes. According to psychology professors Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, whose work was published in the academic journal Psychological Science, students who take notes by hand remember lectures more clearly. As compared to research participants who took notes on a laptop, the pen-and-paper students scored better on tests after the lecture, whether in the short term, 30 minutes later, or the long term, one week later. Their performance was especially strong in conceptual questions that required much more than regurgitating facts.
Mueller and Oppenheimer pointed out that these results held true even if the laptop users were entirely focused on the lecture, avoiding the temptation to browse Facebook or indulge in some other distraction. If you absolutely must use a laptop though, then be sure to avoid what the researchers call “verbatim overlap.” The more you mindlessly transcribe the professor’s exact words, the less likely you are to grasp the overall meaning of the material. This problem is easiest to avoid when taking notes by hand.
Finally, students should also know that our visual memories tend to stick with us more clearly than our auditory memories do, according to research performed by the University of Iowa. This finding suggests that visualizing concepts in your head can make them more memorable than words alone can.
These memory tips are the best you can do for now. College students have a repertoire of learning advice available to them, and people of all ages can benefit from healthy habits, which tend to help the body and mind.
However, in the future, maybe we will be able to plug something like an external hard drive into our brain. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is developing an implantable neural device with the ability to stimulate the brain’s neurons to help restore memory functions. As the laboratory’s official website states, the researchers want a prototype of the device available for clinical testing by 2017. They primarily want to help people with severe memory impairments, such as injured soldiers or Alzheimer’s patients.
Those researchers, and many other scientists, are working on exploring the depths of how our memory works and how we can preserve its valuable functions. In the meantime, remember to help yourself with a wide range of healthy habits.
More To Read: