Improving your memory: 9 tips for boosting brain power at any age
They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when it comes to the brain, scientists have discovered that this old adage simply isn’t true. The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change—even into old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways.
The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory. You can harness the natural power of neuroplasticity to increase your cognitive abilities, enhance your ability to learn new information, and improve your memory at any age. These 9 tips can show you how:
- Give your brain a workout
- Don’t skip the physical exercise
- Get your Zs
- Make time for friends
- Keep stress in check
- Have a laugh
- Eat a brain-boosting diet
- Identify and treat health problems
- Take practical steps to support learning and memory
Tip 1: Give your brain a workout
By the time you’ve reached adulthood, your brain has developed millions of neural pathways that help you process and recall information quickly, solve familiar problems, and execute familiar tasks with a minimum of mental effort. But if you always stick to these well-worn paths, you aren’t giving your brain the stimulation it needs to keep growing and developing. You have to shake things up from time to time!
Memory, like muscular strength, requires you to “use it or lose it.” The more you work out your brain, the better you’ll be able to process and remember information. But not all activities are equal. The best brain exercises break your routine and challenge you to use and develop new brain pathways.
Four key elements of a good brain-boosting activity
- It teaches you something new. No matter how intellectually demanding the activity, if it’s something you’re already good at, it’s not a good brain exercise. The activity needs to be something that’s unfamiliar and out of your comfort zone. To strengthen the brain, you need to keep learning and developing new skills.
- It’s challenging. The best brain-boosting activities demand your full and close attention. It’s not enough that you found the activity challenging at one point. It must still be something that requires mental effort. For example, learning to play a challenging new piece of music counts. Playing a difficult piece you’ve already memorized does not.
- It’s a skill you can build on. Look for activities that allow you to start at an easy level and work your way up as your skills improve —always pushing the envelope so you continue to stretch your capabilities. When a previously difficult level starts to feel comfortable, that means it’s time to tackle the next level of performance.
- It’s rewarding. Rewards support the brain’s learning process. The more interested and engaged you are in the activity, the more likely you’ll be to continue doing it and the greater the benefits you’ll experience. So choose activities that, while challenging, are still enjoyable and satisfying.
Think of something new you’ve always wanted to try, like learning how to play the guitar, make pottery, juggle, play chess, speak French, dance the tango, or master your golf swing. Any of these activities can help you improve your memory, so long as they keep you challenged and engaged.
What about brain-training programs?
There are countless brain-training apps and online programs that promise to boost memory, problem-solving, attention, and even IQ with daily practice. But do they really work? Increasingly, the evidence says no. While these brain-training programs may lead to short-term improvements in whatever task or specific game you’ve been practicing, they don’t appear to do anything to strengthen or improve overall intelligence, memory, or other cognitive abilities.
Tip 2: Don’t skip the physical exercise
While mental exercise is important for brain health, that doesn’t mean you never need to break a sweat. Physical exercise helps your brain stay sharp. It increases oxygen to your brain and reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Exercise also enhances the effects of helpful brain chemicals and reduces stress hormones. Perhaps most importantly, exercise plays an important role in neuroplasticity by boosting growth factors and stimulating new neuronal connections.
Brain-boosting exercise tips
- Aerobic exercise is particularly good for the brain, so choose activities that keep your blood pumping. In general, anything that is good for your heart is great for your brain.
- Does it take you long time to clear out the sleep fog when you wake up? If so, you may find that exercising in the morning before you start your day makes a big difference. In addition to clearing out the cobwebs, it also primes you for learning throughout the day.
- Physical activities that require hand-eye coordination or complex motor skills are particularly beneficial for brain building.
- Exercise breaks can help you get past mental fatigue and afternoon slumps. Even a short walk or a few jumping jacks can be enough to reboot your brain.
If you are experiencing traumatic stress or find yourself stuck in repetitive, unhealthy behavior…
…Try exercising the muscles connected to fight-or-flight with attention. Exercises that use both your arms and legs—and are done in a focused way with mindful awareness of your physical and emotional experience—are especially good at reducing traumatic stress. Exercises like walking, running, swimming, or rock-climbing, activate your senses and make you more aware of yourself and others when they are done with focused attention.
Tip 3: Get your Zs
There is a big difference between the amount of sleep you can get by on and the amount you need to function at your best. The truth is that over 95% of adults need between 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to avoid sleep deprivation. Even skimping on a few hours makes a difference! Memory, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills are all compromised.
But sleep is critical to learning and memory in an even more fundamental way. Research shows that sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, with the key memory-enhancing activity occurring during the deepest stages of sleep.
Get on a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time each morning. Try not to break your routine, even on weekends and holidays.
Avoid all screens for at least an hour before bed. The blue light emitted by TVs, tablets, phones, and computers trigger wakefulness and suppress hormones such as melatonin that make you sleepy.
Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine affects people differently. Some people are highly sensitive, and even morning coffee may interfere with sleep at night. Try reducing your intake or cutting it out entirely if you suspect it’s keeping you up.
Tip 4: Make time for friends
When you think of ways to improve memory, do you think of “serious” activities such as wrestling with the New York Times crossword puzzle or mastering chess strategy, or do more lighthearted pastimes—hanging out with friends or enjoying a funny movie—come to mind? If you’re like most of us, it’s probably the former. But countless studies show that a life full of friends and fun comes with cognitive benefits.
Healthy relationships: the ultimate brain booster
Humans are highly social animals. We’re not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation. Relationships stimulate our brains—in fact, interacting with others may be the best kind of brain exercise.
Research shows that having meaningful friendships and a strong support system are vital not only to emotional health, but also to brain health. In one recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, researchers found that people with the most active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline.
There are many ways to start taking advantage of the brain and memory-boosting benefits of socializing. Volunteer, join a club, make it a point to see friends more often, or reach out over the phone. And if a human isn’t handy, don’t overlook the value of a pet—especially the highly-social dog.