You loved that series on Netflix—or was it Hulu? —with what’s his name from that movie with the actress, you know, with the cool hair?
If you’ve had senior moments like these, you’re not alone.
“Nearly everyone struggles with some form of memory loss before reaching middle age,” says Gary Small, MD, Chair of Psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center and author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young.
In a nationwide Gallup poll of 18,552 U.S. adults 18 and older, researchers found that about 14% of the youngest group (ages 18-39) complained about their memory.
And the problem seems to be getting worse, thanks to increased screen time and bad lifestyle choices.
But you can fight back against forgetfulness.
On a recent episode of the Write About Now Podcast, Dr. Small laid out some memory-building techniques that will make your brain happy.
Why we’re so forgetful
To understand why we forget things, it helps to understand how we remember them in the first place.
“Memory has two major components: learning and recall,” explains Dr. Small. “You got to get that information into your brain, and you have to be able to retrieve it.”
But anyone who has ever played around with a smartphone, computer, or social media knows how distracting they can be. And this is a problem.
“If you’re not focusing your attention, you’re never gonna get that information into your brain,” Dr. Small says. “We are constantly bombarded with more and more incoming data. This often results in information overload that likely decreases the percentage of stimuli that enter our short- and long-term memory stores.”
Bad health equals bad memory
Unhealthy lifestyle choices are another major factor in memory loss.
Just as eating too many donuts and not getting enough sleep can lead to problems such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, those behaviors can also affect our brain health, according to Dr. Small. “They cause your brain to prematurely age.”
Our mental health is also suffering. Many of us feel overwhelmed because of the pandemic, job burnout, gas prices, and overall life in the 21st century.
“When we are experiencing feelings of depression and prolonged anxiety or stress, we become distracted, and our memory abilities diminish,” explains Dr. Small.
How to improve your memory
While many of us struggle with forgetfulness, there are effective ways to get our memory back into fighting shape.
Look, Snap, Connect
Dr. Small suggests a memory skill he and his former colleagues at UCLA developed called “Look, Snap, and Connect.”
The premise is if you can make something meaningful, it will become memorable. How does it work?
Look:First, slow down, notice, and focus on what you want to remember. Take in all the details and meaning, such as a new face, a conversation, or directions to a new location.
Snap:Create a mental snapshot of what you want to remember. The brain has a natural ability to remember things visually, so leverage that. Say, for example, you’re meeting someone for the first time and want to remember them. A mental snapshot might be their hairstyle or their smile.
Connect: Link up those mental snapshots to be remembered in a chain, starting with the first image, which is associated with the second, and so on. If you meet someone named Harry and notice he has a lot of hair. You connect Harry with hairy.
Studies show that exercise increases memory function. Research from the University of Illinois found that when you exercise, your body produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Dr. Small describes as “fertilizer for your brain cells.” BDNF causes “your brain to sprout branches so they can communicate more effectively,” he explains.
You don’t have to adopt a rigorous regime, either. Even a brisk 20-minute walk daily lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Small.
Get more sleep
Insomnia is memory’s enemy. When we don’t get enough sleep, we shut down our ability to concentrate and remember stuff. Dr. Small recommends seven to eight hours of sleep each night. He also advises against too much caffeine, which causes us to become irritable and distracted.
Eat more foods with antioxidants and curcumin
Obesity can trigger late-life cognitive impairment, according to Dr. Small. He recommends avoiding processed foods, such as refined sugars, which are pro-inflammatory and bad for the brain.
Oxidation also causes wear and tear on your brain cells, so try to eat foods high in antioxidants, such as fish, nuts, olive oil, and avocados.
Dr. Small is also high on curcumin, a yellow pigment found in cumin, curries, and mustard.
In research done at UCLA, people taking curcumin improved their scores on memory tests by 28 percent over 18 months.
Do brain aerobics
Just like we work out our muscles, we also need to cross-train our brains. Think of it as 24-Hour Fitness for our hippocampus.
According to Dr. Small, “The information in our brains is passed through billions of dendrites, or extensions of brain cells, similar to branches of a tree. Without use, our dendrites can shrink or atrophy; but when we exercise them in new and creative ways, their connections remain active as they pass new information along.”
Mentally stimulating activities can include playing wordle and crossword puzzles, listening to music, writing in a journal, solving brainteasers, or watching Jeopardy!
In his book, Dr. Small suggests some brain builders, including this exercise:
To get more memory-sharpening skill, listen to the entire Write About Now Podcast interview with Dr. Gary Small: