However, the good news is that many of these types of memory lapses are not necessarily signs of dementia or brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Even more good news: there are ways to improve your everyday memory. These methods will be useful for both people over 50 and younger, because there is nothing better than instilling good habits in advance.
Many people notice such memory lapses starting at the age of 50. This is when age-related chemical and structural changes begin in areas of the brain associated with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes, says Dr. Salinas.
“Because it is more difficult for brain cells to function, the networks they are part of are also more difficult to work if there are no other cells ready to serve as spares. Imagine, for example, a large choir. If one tenor loses his voice, the audience may not notice the difference. But you will be in trouble if most of the tenors lose their votes and there are no understudies in their place,” he says.
These brain changes can slow down the speed at which information is processed, sometimes making it difficult to remember familiar names, words, or new information.
However, age is not always the only culprit. Memory is susceptible to depression, anxiety, stress, medication side effects, and lack of sleep, so it’s important to talk to your doctor to determine if any of these could be related to your memory lapses.
What can you do?
While you can’t reverse the effects of aging, there are ways to sharpen your day-to-day memory and help your brain acquire and retain information. Here are some strategies that can help.
Be organized. If you regularly lose items, keep them in a certain place. For example, put all your everyday items like glasses, keys, and wallet in one container and place it in a place that is always visible. “Having these items in the same place makes it easier for your brain to learn the pattern and create a habit that becomes second nature to you,” says Dr. Salinas.
Keep learning. Create situations for yourself where you have to constantly learn and remember new information. Take classes at a local college, learn to play an instrument, take an art class, play chess, or join a book club. Challenge yourself.
Set reminders. Write notes and leave them where you see them. For example, write a note on your bathroom mirror reminding you to go to a meeting or take your medicine. You can also use the alarm on your mobile phone or ask a friend to call you. Another option is to send yourself email reminders.
Break up tasks. If you’re having trouble remembering the entire sequence of steps needed to complete a task, break it down into smaller parts and do them one at a time. For example, remember the first three digits of a phone number, then three, then four. “It’s easier for the brain to pay attention to quick, small chunks of information than to long, unwieldy chains of information, especially if that information doesn’t follow a logical sequence,” says Dr. Salinas.
Create associations. Take mental pictures of what you want to remember and combine, exaggerate, or distort them to make them stand out and be remembered. For example, if you park your car in space 3B, imagine three huge giants guarding your car. If you come up with a strange or emotional image, you are more likely to remember it.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repetition increases the likelihood that you will write down information and be able to retrieve it later. Repeat out loud what you have heard, read or thought. When you meet someone for the first time, repeat their name twice. For example, say: “Mark…. Nice to meet you, Mark! When someone gives you directions, repeat them step by step. After an important conversation, such as with a doctor, repeat out loud over and over what was said during the appointment on the way home.
Represent. Replaying the action in your mind can help you remember how to do it. For example, when you need to buy bananas on your way home, recreate the activity in your mind in vivid detail. Imagine that you enter a store, go to the fruit section, choose bananas, and then pay for them, and mentally repeat this sequence over and over again. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but this technique has been shown to help improve prospective memory—the ability to remember to complete a planned action—even among people with mild cognitive impairment.
Stay in touch. Research has shown that regular social interaction provides mental stimulation. Talking, listening, and remembering information can all help improve your memory. Some research has shown that just 10 minutes of talking can be effective. “In general, people who are more socially integrated are also more likely to have a healthier functioning brain and a lower risk of age-related brain diseases such as stroke or dementia,” says Dr. Salinas.