As we age our memory declines. This is an ingrained assumption for many of us; however, according to Dr. Richard Restak, a neurologist and clinical professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, decline is not inevitable.
The author of more than 20 books on the mind, Restak has decades’ worth of experience in guiding patients with memory problems. “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind,” his latest book, includes information on mental exercises, sleep habits and diet that can help boost memory.
Restak considers every facet of memory: how it is connected to creative thinking, technology’s impact on memory, how memory shapes identity. “The point of the book is to overcome the everyday problems of memory,” he said.
Especially working memory, which falls between immediate recall and long-term memory, and is tied to intelligence, concentration and achievement. According to Restak, this is the most critical type of memory, and exercises to strengthen it should be practiced daily. But bolstering all memory skills is key to warding off later issues.
Memory decline is not inevitable with aging, Restak argues in the book. Instead, he points to 10 “sins,” or “stumbling blocks that can lead to lost or distorted memories.” Seven were first described by memory specialist Daniel Lawrence Schacter: “sins of omission,” such as absent- mindedness, and “sins of commission,” such as distorted memories. To those, Restak added three of his own: technological distortion, technological distraction and depression.
Here are some of Restak’s tips for developing and maintaining a healthy memory.
Pay more attention
Some memory lapses are actually attention problems, not memory problems. For instance, if you’ve forgotten the name of someone you met at a cocktail party, it could be because you were talking with several people at the time and didn’t properly pay attention.
“Inattention is the biggest cause for memory difficulties, ” he said. “It means you didn’t properly encode the memory.”
One way to pay attention when you learn new information, such as a name, is to visualize the word. Having a picture associated with the word, he said, can improve recall. For instance, he recently had to memorize the name of a doctor, Dr. King, so he pictured a doctor “in a white coat with a crown on his head and a scepter instead of a stethoscope in his hand.”
There are many memory exercises that you can integrate into everyday life. Restak suggested composing a grocery list and memorizing it. When you get to the store, don’t automatically pull out your list. Instead, use your memory.
“Try to see the items in your mind,” he said, and only consult the list at the end, if necessary.
Another challenge: Memorize a recipe. He added that frequent cooking is a great way to improve working memory.
Games such as bridge and chess are great for memory, but so is a simpler game, said Restak. For instance, Restak’s “favorite working memory game” is 20 Questions — in which a group (or a single person) thinks of a person, place or object, and the other person, the questioner, asks 20 questions with a yes-or-no answer. It’s a great fit because to succeed, he said, the questioner must hold all of the previous answers in memory in order to guess the correct answer.
Another of Restak’s tried-and-true memory exercises involves naming presidents. First, recall the U.S. presidents, starting with Joe Biden and going back to, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, writing or recording them. Then, do the same, from FDR to Biden. Next, name only the Democratic presidents, and then the Republican ones. Then put them in alphabetical order.
Also, try it with players on your favorite sports team. The point is to engage your working memory, “maintaining information and moving it around in your mind,” he wrote.
Beware of technology
Among Restak’s three sins of memory, two are associated with technology.
First is what he calls “technological distortion.” Storing everything on your phone means “you don’t know it,” which can erode our own mental abilities.
“Why bother to focus, concentrate and apply effort to visualize something when a cellphone camera can do all the work for you?” he wrote.
The second way our relationship with technology is detrimental for memory is the way it often takes our focus away from the task at hand. “In our day, the greatest impediment of memory is distraction,” Restak wrote.
People today can check their email while streaming Netflix and talking with a friend. All of this impedes our ability to focus on the present moment, critical for encoding memories.
Read more novels
One early indicator of memory issues is giving up on fiction. “People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” he said.
Restak has noticed that fiction requires active engagement with the text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You have to remember what the character did on Page 3 by the time you get to Page 11,” he said.
Your mood plays a big role in what you do or do not remember. Among “people who are referred to neurologists for memory issues, one of the biggest causes is depression,” he said.
Your emotional state affects the kind of memories you recall. The hippocampus (or “memory entry center,” said Restak) and the amygdala (the part of the brain that manages emotions and emotional behavior) are linked — so “when you’re in a bad mood, or depressed, you tend to remember sad things,” he said. Treating depression also often restores memory.