Can’t remember your second grade teacher’s name or what you had for dinner last night? If so, that’s normal: Both long-term and short-term memory tend to deteriorate with age. However, the more neurobiologists learn about the aging body, the more tricks they discover for slowing or even reversing the process. We’ve selected six ways to keep a great memory regardless of age.
Yes, yes, that’s not a typo. No one knows why, but studies show that chewing gum boosts memory. In 2002, an experiment was conducted in Cambridge, and the results showed that gum-chewing subjects had significantly better long-term and short-term memory test scores than those with empty mouths.
In the decade that followed, scientists tried to figure out why this was so, and whether it really was true. Scientists have several hypotheses. Perhaps chewing gum speeds up circulation by increasing the heart rate. Another hypothesis explains this phenomenon by affecting the function of an area of the brain called the hippocampus, causing the body to release insulin.
When you fall asleep, your brain continues to work. It reproduces the memories of the day and prepares them for long-term storage. Studies with lab rats have shown that while rodents sleep, two areas of the brain-the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex, the area involved in retrieving memories from the distant past (in both humans and rats)-go through an accelerated version of the day’s events. This process is thought to be important for the consolidation and careful storage of newly formed memories. As a consequence, skipping a night’s sleep will cause your new memory files to become jumbled or lost, making them nearly impossible to recover.
Scientists have found that scents can have a powerful effect on people’s cognitive functions. In a 2003 study, psychologists asked 144 volunteers to perform a series of tests on long-term and so-called working memory, attention and reaction. One-third of the volunteers were seated in an odorless office, one-third in an office filled with rosemary essential oil, and the rest were in offices scented with lavender oil.
As it turned out, those in the rosemary-scented rooms showed significantly better long-term and working memory than those sitting in the unscented room. At the same time, the volunteers in the lavender-scented room performed the worst of all.
Food for the Mind
Everyone hopes to age gracefully, inside and out. Scientists say that a good diet is one of the major differences between those who are alert at 70 and those who look haggard at 40.
To keep your memory young as your brain ages, scientists recommend eating foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, apples, bananas, dark green vegetables, garlic and carrots. Antioxidants are molecules that easily bind and neutralize electrons called “free radicals”. As you age, they accumulate in your body and can injure and kill your brain cells, among other things.
The brain is built mostly of healthy fats, including the most important one, omega-3 fatty acids. In order for the brain to continue to function properly, you must provide it with the raw materials it needs. Omega-3s are found in many types of fish and nuts. Studies show that eating chocolate can improve memory because it is rich in antioxidants (flavonoids). Just don’t overdo it — you don’t want too much sugar.
To keep your brain in shape, make it sweat. No kidding. Constant reflection really does sharpen your memory. As evidence for this claim accumulates, an entire field of brain fitness is developing.
A program called Lumosity, developed with the help of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, is designed specifically for older adults. It helps improve memory, concentration, alertness and even mood. Plus there are always classic puzzles, Sudoku, crossword puzzles — free brain exercisers.
Yoga — no, cardio exercise — yes
Exercise not only builds muscle, it also strengthens gray matter. Studies show that the memory center in the brain, called the hippocampus, shrinks with age. In 2011, scientists proved that in older people with moderate exercise, the volume of the hippocampus increases.
In the study, conducted by Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois-Urbana, 60 adults between the ages of 55 and 80 took three 40-minute walks a week and performed a series of cardio exercises. Another 60 participants did yoga and stretching for the same amount of time. After a year of study, the anterior hippocampus of participants in the second group had lost an average of just over 1% of its volume. A year of active exercise resulted in an increase in anterior hippocampal volume of about 2%.