By SMH Outpatient Care Coordinator Wanda Jackson
"Memory" is defined as the ability to store, retain and recall information and experiences. This highly complex process begins as a sensory input from our environment: We see, taste, smell, hear, touch, and/or feel something. As this information is made meaningful, it moves into our short-term memory. If it is important or rehearsed, it moves into our long-term memory.
But we all learn, process, and store information—or make memory—a little differently. Some people are stronger auditory learns, they hear something and remember it. Others are visual learners who see it and remember it. Personally, I’m a visual learner, so I have to take notes and see it written out to remember it. My husband, however, has only to hear something to remember it (if he’s listening) Our daughter is a kinetic learner; she needs to be moving to remember, otherwise all her thought processing effort goes to sitting still. (Example: Sit her at a table to learn spelling words, and it will take much longer than if she takes her list and goes for a walk while studying the list.)
Like learning, memory loss is something that everyone experiences, but they might experience in different ways. Memory loss can be mild or severe enough that it interferes with normal functioning. It can start with verbal memory loss, forgetting names, stories, and language; visual loss, which shows up as forgetting routes, shapes, and faces; informational loss, which is having trouble learning new things or remembering how to do things; or vascular dementia, which is a common, post-stroke condition due to blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain.
Some types of memory loss, like those caused by age and heredity, are categorized as “non-modifiable,” meaning they cannot be change. But other types are modifiable, and making certain lifestyle changes can encourage good memory. Here are some lifestyle tweaks you can make today to enhance your memory and cognition.
10 To-Do's to Keep Your Memory Sharp
1. Challenge your brain! “Use it or lose it” certainly applies to your brain. Take a class, learn a new language, play a new game or instrument, sing, or read. But make it difficult. If you always do crossword puzzles, challenge yourself with Sudoku. If it’s easy, it’s not a mental exercise!
The more you are invested in learning new information, the more likely you will store it successfully. So if you have a trip to Italy planned, commit to learning a few Italian phrases. If your grandson plays baseball, learn the rules and popular stats so you can talk baseball with him. Find what you love, learn something new, and enjoy the experience!
2. Treat health problems that can contribute to memory loss. There are many diseases and medications that can interfere with memory such as heart disease, diabetes, hormone imbalance, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and even gum disease like gingivitis. See your doctor and dentist, follow their instructions, and take medications as prescribed.
For some, vitamins (like E, D, Omega 3s) and/or drug therapy could be beneficial for enhanced memory. Always be open and honest with your physician. There is no reason to hide complications when you can tackle them head on.
3. Eat for a healthy brain. Our brains need good cholesterol and fat—it’s like the oil in our engine! So enjoy a good avocado, take a fish-oil supplement, or eat more “fatty” fish like salmon, tuna, trout, halibut, and mackerel. Cook with olive and grapeseed oils. Enjoy some nuts, and don’t forget those dark green vegetables like spinach and broccoli. Scale back saturated fats from things like red meat, whole milk, butter, cheese, and cream.
Fill up on brain foods that are packed with antioxidants, which can protect brain cells from damage. Eat colorful fruits and vegetables like blueberries, grapes, and plums. Go ahead and enjoy that glass of red wine. It can improve memory by boosting blood flow, and the grapes can reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s disease!
4. Get your sleep. Sleep deprivation contributes to cognitive dysfunction and many other health issues, including high blood pressure, fatigue, obesity, depression, impaired vision, exaggerated moods, and a greater risk of accidents. Limit naps to a 20-minute max; a longer nap will interfere with your REM sleep. Cut out caffeine especially after noon, and get active; daytime exercise helps you sleep better at night.
Set up a healthy bedtime routine. Sleep in a clean, cool room. Avoid upsetting information like watching the nightly news. It’s better to read or listen to music before bed. Try to sleep naturally, but if you have difficulty getting to or staying asleep, check with your doctor about possible medications.
5. Treat depression and manage stress. Depression interferes with thought processing, making it difficult to handle even simple tasks and interfering with the process of encoding memories. There are two areas in our brain where we grow new cells. One is the hippocampus, which is involved in memory processing. Growth in this brain area is decreased when we are depressed. If you think you may be depressed, seek help. The effects of this condition can be more far-reaching than you think.
Stress often results in decreased productivity, trouble making decisions, and memory problems. When we are stressed, we have higher levels of cortisol, the “fight or flight response” is halted, and the body and brain “freeze” with inactivity and confusion.
Cortisol restricts the brain’s ability to generate new memories and retrieve old ones. This is why so often after a traumatic event, people find it hard to remember the specific chain of events that occurred and will often only remember bits and pieces. There are many ways to learn to manage stress, but the easiest is just adding a little exercise to your routine— even if it’s just walking for 10 minutes each day.
6. Drink more water. This is an easy one to do: Just drink more water. Your brain will thank you for it! Since the brain is about 73-percent water, it needs to stay hydrated. Hydrating fluids include water and pretty much anything other than coffee, tea, soda or alcohol. We need about 48 to 64 ounces of hydrating fluids each day. Try to drink more in the morning hours as higher consumption late in the day might interfere with your sleep.
7. Be social. Our brains need social interactions. Lack of social interactions may also point to another brain destroyer, depression so get out there and enjoy friends and family. Social interactions help your brain produce happy chemicals as you experience pleasure and positively share with others.
8. Get exercise. Our brains need us to exercise because physical exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the small reaches of our brain. Exercise is a powerful tool for enhancing mental performance and cognitive health. Whether you want to improve your memory, enhance your problem-solving capabilities, or reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, exercise has an important role to play.
Exercises that include aerobic activity, resistance, hand-eye coordination, complex motor skills, and weight training produce the greatest overall improvements in cognitive performance. However, it’s also beneficial to just move as much as you can. If movement is challenging, try some deep-breathing exercises. Other benefits of exercise include stress reduction, better vascular, metabolic, and inflammatory functions. Exercise can also be social. Ask a friend to walk with you or try going to a group exercise class.
9. Laugh more. Laughter is great medicine, especially for your brain. Laughter engages multiple regions of the brain, so laugh it up! Don’t take life too seriously. Tell those stories about embarrassing moments. Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up like framed photos of you and your loved ones having fun or a funny poster. Start the day by reading the comics. Watch the way children laugh with their whole bodies. Just smile!
10. Give your brain a helping hand. If you are having trouble with memory, try these simple steps to help you manage it.
- Have a place for everything, and put everything in its place. Example: a place for your keys near your front door. Organization is key to finding those keys!
- Write things down. Have a calendar where you keep appointments and times listed. Keep a list of medications and when to take them. Take notes at doctor’s appointments.
- Have a routine. It’s easier to remember things, if you do them in a specific order.
- Keep it simple. Don’t try to tackle too many things at once. Pay attention to what you’re doing and where you put things. Stay in the moment, and don’t get distracted by doing more than one thing at a time. Break tasks down into easy steps.
- Repetition. The 3 Rs of remembering are Repetition, Repetition, Repetition! If you forget what someone said, ask them to repeat it. Then repeat it back to them, which helps commit it to memory.
It’s not too late to throw your brain a life line! Try these tips, and enjoy every moment while you’re at it!
Certified Healthcare Access Manager Wanda Jackson, Sarasota Memorial’s outpatient care coordinator, helps patients and families connect the dots from inpatient care to outpatient services. Currently, she serves as an oncology navigator, outpatient cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation navigator, and MDA/ALS clinic coordinator. She also facilitates SMH’s stroke wellness clubs, stroke support groups, stroke survivors’ cooking classes, Parkinson’s wellness clubs and support groups, and other programs.