Ever misplace your keys, forget someone’s name, or lose your train of thought? Of course you have. Everyone struggles with their memory from time to time.
While they can be frustrating, these little slips are common and normal, says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Memory Bible.
"We become more forgetful as we age, and by 45 the average person has a measurable decline in their memory ability, but we have more control than we think," says Small. "The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging found that genetics only accounts for a third of memory success. The rest is our cognitive and physical health."
The biggest reason we forget is because we’re not paying attention, says Small. Many of us rely on gadgets to help with memory—taking a photo of the parking garage level with our smartphone, for example—but they can also distract us, which can cause us to forget even more. Instead of relying on something external, Small offers eight strategies for improving your memory:
In his memory education program at UCLA, Small teaches the "Look, Snap, Connect" technique.
"’Look’ is a reminder to focus your attention, ‘Snap’ is a reminder to create a mental snapshot because we’re hardwired to remember things visually, and ‘Connect’ is a way of linking those mental snapshots so they have meaning," says Small. "If it is meaningful, it will be memorable."
For example, if you have two errands to run—pick up eggs and go to the post office—Small’s technique would have you picture an egg with a stamp on it.
Routines and habits also boost memory, says Small. You can use the power of repetition to reduce forgetfulness. For example, remember your vitamins by always taking them with breakfast. Have a specific place to store glasses, keys, or purse. Or always check your to-do list before you leave the house.
Get into a daily exercise regimen. Small says aerobic workouts get your heart pumping, which brings nutrients to brain cells and helps grow nerves that connect them.
"Just 20 minutes a day of aerobic exercise will lower your risk for Alzheimer’s," says Small.
One reason our memory fails is because free radicals wear down our DNA and cellular structure, resulting in oxidation of the brain, says Small.
"If you left a bicycle in the rain, it will rust," he says. "Similar kinds of chemical processes go on in the brain." Eating antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables help combat this issue.
Another problem with aging is an increase in inflammation, which can affect brain cells, says Small. Eating omega-three fats, found in fish or nuts, helps reduce this inflammation.
While it’s impossible to totally eliminate stress, chronic bouts shrink the memory centers that are located inside the brain. To lower stress levels, Small suggests practicing meditation or tai chi, or doing breathing or stretching exercises throughout the day.
A lot of studies show that stimulating your mind boosts your brainpower and lowers your risk for Alzheimer’s. While you can find lots of games on the Internet, Small also suggests remaining socially active and involved with friends and activities.
"The idea is to train and not strain your brain," he says. "Find activities that are engaging and fun—not too difficult and not too easy."
Young adults usually need eight hours of sleep, but as you age, your body requires less, says Small.
"If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, you might need six hour of sleep instead of eight," he says. "Instead of taking sleep medicine, take the time to figure out what’s going on with your sleep needs."
Finally, if you have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, make sure you’re seeing a doctor. "Taking the proper medicines for your physical health will also make a difference in the health of your memory," says Small.