“It’s the nouns that go first,” a good friend quipped when she couldn’t remember a favorite author’s name. How true. Every year it seems to take me longer to learn names and phone numbers, and lately I need an extra hour to pull some words out of my memory—if they ever come. More often, too, the wrong word pops out of my mouth. When I say “January” but really mean “July,” my women friends understand and put together the meaning from context. The men in my life just get confused and frustrated with me. Don’t they know I can’t help it?
Billy Collins said it best in his poem, “Forgetfulness.” Click here to see an animated version of the poem on YouTube. It’s one of my faves.
What can I do to protect my memory?
More and more of us are living longer, and the majority of us will live well into our 80’s. So am I facing an unavoidable mental decline in the coming decades? NO!
We can take some simple steps to boost our memory, and the first is as basic as breathing: get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation has a huge impact on mental functioning, and too many of us ignore this important aspect of a healthy lifestyle. Most people need at least eight hours of sleep a night (every night, not just on weekends) in order to give our brains time to regenerate cells and reorganize information as we sleep. A body deprived of sleep loses ground with memory.
The next item on the list is nutrition. According to the Harvard Medical School, a healthy, balanced diet is one of the proven ways to protect your memory. They also recommend regular exercise, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar in check.
Of all the nutrients, B vitamins are the most essential for helping your mind stay sharp. Your body uses B vitamins to turn food into mental energy and to repair brain tissue. Thiamin, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12 are probably the most important for mental functioning. Many breads, cereals, and pastas are enriched with thiamin and niacin, so usually we get enough of these nutrients. B vitamins also occur naturally in meat, poultry, shellfish, baked potatoes, bananas, and chickpeas. Nutritional yeast is also a great source for B-vitamins.
Another factor in avoiding “brain drain” is getting a good supply of blood to the brain. Back to low fat and high fiber, which keep your veins and arteries clear. Health tips keep coming back to a low fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. O.K. I can do that.
Those of us who rely on coffee for a jump-start each morning may be pleased to learn that a recent study at Johns Hopkins University found that “caffeine has a positive effect on long-term memory.” Of course, moderation is the key here: too much coffee can make you jittery and reduce your concentration, and coffee has other negative effects, too.
POP A MINT
Another short-term boost to mental functioning might be peppermint. After hearing about a study linking mint chewing with higher test scores, I gave my students peppermint candy during their state writing test. A few students swore that it made a difference, and at least they all had sweet breath (and thought I was wonderful).
Last but not least, go light on alcohol. Alcohol destroys brain cells every time you use it. Many doctors recommend abstaining completely to keep your mind at its sharpest, but at the very least, it’s wise to limit yourself to one or two drinks a day.
It’s true that you can improve your memory by challenging yourself. You can do it with the online sites, but it might be cheaper and more effective for you to challenge your brain by learning something new: master a language, learn to play a musical instrument, or volunteer at something that’s new to you. The important thing is to engage your brain with new and challenging situations.
I consulted one of my more obscure resources to get a historical perspective on memory: Vivilore: The Pathway to Mental and Physical Perfection., © 1904. This guidebook, written over 100 years ago by Mary Ries Melendy, warns not to think about or handle the sexual organs because “it draws the blood away from the spine and the brain. It lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis and heart disease. It weakens the memory, and makes [one] careless, stupid, and too lazy to study or even play with any keen enjoyment.”
WOW! We’ve come a long way, baby.
So—choose your own path, but remember…