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Enhancing Your Memory

Body+Soul, 2007

Sure, you sometimes forget where you parked. And every once in a while you blank on a particular word ("I know it starts with an 'a' ). But you're not worried. When your memory really starts to slip, you'll rely on tried-and-true mental calisthenics to kick that brain back into shape.

Unfortunately, maintaining your memory takes more than a Sudoku or Scrabble habit. It requires a broader approach -- the same diet, exercise, and self-care regimen that keeps you healthy overall. "When people combine memory-improving techniques with healthy lifestyle changes, they can see dramatic results in their memory function," explains Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center and author of several books on memory, including "The Healthy Brain Kit."

So what causes memory loss in the first place? "Over time, several things happen," notes Thomas Crook, Ph.D., former chairman of a National Institute of Mental Health task force and author of "The Memory Advantage." "We lose brain cells, the connections between surviving brain cells become weaker, and the chemicals that send messages within the brain become less efficient."

Here's the good news, though: While some basic forgetfulness ("Did I mail that letter?") is common, it doesn't necessarily signal Alzheimer's down the road. Plus, not all types of memory lessen with age. Procedural memory, which governs physical skill, for example, generally stays consistent -- proving the old adage "It's like riding a bike." And some higher-level brain functions, such as judgment and wisdom, grow stronger.

While nothing can make you recall information as nimbly as you could in your twenties (your prime memory years, says Small), we're not doomed to a steady cognitive downslide. The choices you make now to cross-train your brain can affect how it functions over time. So put down that crossword puzzle and learn about some surprising other ways you can boost brain health and enhance your memory.

Imprint the Info

You can't remember what you didn't hear in the first place. Often, what we call forgetfulness is actually the result of distraction, which prevents salient details from making a lasting impression in our brains. Whether you're meeting someone for the first time or learning how to use the phone system, says Crook, be sure you're really focused as you take in the new information. (That means no multitasking.)

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efore you're faced with having to absorb information (like listening to the car salesperson explain all the buttons on your dashboard), jot down any other thoughts to get them out of the way. You'll better clear your mind for the influx of new material.

Hit the Hay

As fatigue rises, memory declines, says Crook, which makes getting enough sleep a no-brainer for greater mental acuity and recall. In fact, he says, if you need an alarm to wake you up, you may well be sleep deprived.

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If you feel like you're not sleeping enough, go to bed half an hour earlier for a week and take note of how much sharper you feel.

Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet

As we age, our brain cells become less adept at warding off the effects of inflammation (one of the body's healing responses that, when overstimulated, is associated with many chronic diseases) and oxidation (the same process that causes a cut apple to turn brown). This contributes to impaired cognitive function.

To stay sharp, says Andrew Weil, M.D., co-author of "The Healthy Brain Kit" and author of "Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being," eat foods and spices hailed for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, including oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring), fruits and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, and turmeric. Also avoid saturated fats (in foods like full-fat dairy products and red meat), trans fats, and partially hydrogenated oils, as well as foods high in refined carbs and sugars. In a 2002 study, UCLA researchers found that rats fed a saturated-fat, refined-sugar diet experienced drops in their spatial memory after just two months.

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Commit to eating one more serving of fish and healthy fats each week. Swap out two cans of soda for two cups of green tea (another powerful antioxidant) each day.

Get Moving

Exercise isn't just good for your body; it's a boon for your brain, too. Among the many studies showing that exercise helps benefit memory, a 2001 study found that elderly women who walked more each week than their peers had a substantially lower risk of experiencing cognitive decline.

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Crook recommends exercise that gets your heart pumping, such as biking, swimming, or fast-paced walking, three to six times per week. Include resistance training exercises with weights three times per week.

Learn for the Sake of It

An open mind plus a willingness to learn make a winning combination, says Weil. Since the central nervous system is plastic in nature, it continues to change in response to shifting needs and stimuli. "The more you learn, the more connections you create in your brain," he says. "This results in a richer, denser neural network that will be slower to produce symptoms of dementia." (And it can't hurt on the memory front, either.) The process of learning something new may feel frustrating, but it brings big rewards. "It requires real effort to change what you're used to," he says. "But that mental challenge is what forces the pathways and connections in the brain to stay dynamic."

One of the most effective brain workouts? Learn a foreign language. "You don't even have to master the language to reap the benefits," says Weil. Just engaging in the learning process will keep your memory in top shape.

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Challenge yourself to begin learning something new. Teach yourself Excel or a graphics software program. Take a class at a local college on a topic that's just outside of your comfort zone (i.e., math if you're a literature person, philosophy if you're a science person). Give salsa-dancing a whirl. Take up Russian.

Take Time to Decompress

You may do your best thinking under pressure. But long-term stress negatively affects your memory. "Stress hormones have been shown to shrink memory centers in the brain," Small explains.

On the other hand, doing activities that calm you -- whether through a more formal practice like yoga and tai chi or something less structured (weeding, long baths, listening to music) -- improves your mental and physical health. In a 2004 study, kids who participated in yoga camp showed a 43 percent increase on spatial memory tests, as compared to no improvement in kids who took the tests after attending a fine arts camp or who didn't attend camp at all.

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Put stress reduction on the schedule. Start by signing up for a mind/body wellness class in your area.

Widen the Lens

One of the biggest challenges to overall cognitive functioning and memory, says clinical psychologist Les Fehmi, Ph.D., co-author of "The Open-Focus Brain," is a cluttered mind, which makes it difficult to take in or access information.

The solution? Change the way you pay attention to what's going on around you. The kind of focus you need to drive a car, for instance, can be draining to maintain. "When you open your focus to include the space around you," says Fehmi, "the brain engages more cells at a slower speed, which helps you maximize your attention and retention."

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Teach your brain to relax its focus. With your eyes closed, imagine the space surrounding you. "As you expand that awareness from the wall and ceiling to the horizon," says Fehmi, "the brain starts to slow down and can release the stress resulting from a vigilant focus-and heal itself."

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