Normal age-related changes in the brain can slow some cognitive processes, making it a bit harder to learn new things quickly or to ward off distractions. The good news is that, thanks to decades of research, most of us can sharpen our minds with proven, do-it-yourself strategies. Here are some ways to boost your ability to remember as you age.
1. Believe in yourself.
Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory, and better if exposed to messages about memory preservation into old age.
2. Economize your brain use.
Take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. Designate a place at home for your glasses, keys, and other items you use frequently.
3. Organize your thoughts.
New information that’s broken into smaller chunks, such as the hyphenated sections of a phone or social security number, is easier to remember than a single long list, such as financial account numbers or the name of everyone in a classroom.
4. Use all your senses.
The more senses you use when you learn something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining the memory. For example, odors are famous for conjuring memories from the distant past, especially those with strong emotional content, such as visits to a cookie-baking grandparent.
5. Expand your brain.
Widen the brain regions involved in learning by reading aloud, drawing a picture, or writing down the information you want to learn (even if you never look back at your notes). Just forming a visual image of something makes it easier to remember and understand; it forces you to make the information more precise.
6. Repeat after me.
When you want to remember something you have just heard or thought about, repeat it out loud. For example, if you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: “So John, where did you meet Camille?”
7. Space it out.
Instead of repeating something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time once an hour, then every few hours, then every day. Spacing out periods of study is particularly valuable when you are trying to master complicated information.
8. Make a mnemonic.
Mnemonic devices are creative ways to remember lists. They can take the form of acronyms such as the classic “Every good boy does fine,” to remember the musical notes E, G, B, D, and F on the lines of the treble clef. For older learners, a particularly helpful system is a story mnemonic that is, a brief narrative in which each item cues you to remember the next one.
9. Challenge yourself.
Engaging in activities that require you to concentrate and tax your memory will help you maintain skills as you age. Discuss books, do crossword puzzles, try new recipes, travel, and undertake projects or hobbies that require skills you aren’t familiar or comfortable with.
10. Take a course.
Memory-improvement courses are becoming more common. Choose one run by health professionals or experts in psychology or cognitive rehabilitation. Stay away from courses that center on computer or concentration games, which generally won’t help you with real-life memory problems. Select a course that focuses on practical ways to manage everyday challenges.