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Improve Your Memory

Tips to boost your memory and keep it strong for years to come.

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Bite off bigger pieces. Since your brain can process only so much information at a time, try chunking bits together. By repeating a phone number as "thirty-eight, twenty-seven" instead of "3, 8, 2, 7," you only have to remember two numbers, not four, Dr. Small points out. If you need to buy ground beef, milk, lettuce, cereal, and buns, you might think "dinner" (burgers, buns, lettuce) and "breakfast" (cereal and milk).

Give words more meaning. When you're introduced — let's say to Sally — you can make up a rhyme ("Sally in the alley") or connect the name to a song ("Mustang Sally"). Some people swear by devices like mnemonics. One New York City dog owner never leaves for the morning walk without her three b's (bags, biscuits, ball) and two t's (telephone, tissues).

Create unlikely connections. Jennifer Rapaport, a mother of three in Somerville, MA, switches her watch to the other wrist when she needs to remember something. The oddity of not finding the watch where it should be triggers her recall.

Stop trying so hard. You're watching an old movie on TV and can't think of the lead actor's name. "What is it?" you fret. "Why can't I remember?" Then an hour later, as you're peeling carrots, "Clark Gable" pops into your head. "Anxiety distracts us, making it even harder to remember," says Dr. Small. De-stressing — taking deep breaths, thinking of something pleasant — can break the cycle.

Build a Better Brain

For information to get stored in our memory, it goes through stages: encoding (when you learn it) and consolidating (when it becomes fixed in long-term memory). The final step is retrieval (when you call it up). Good health habits can boost all of these.

Sleep on it. Anyone who's ever stayed up with a new baby recognizes that next-day brain fuzziness, when it seems like nothing really registers or is available for recall later. That is what's happening. Different parts of the brain are responsible for creating different types of memories — a face, a name, or just the recollection that you met someone, explains Gary Richardson, M.D., senior research scientist at the Sleep Disorders Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "Sleep is what helps knit all those memories together." You also need sleep to make long-term memories last. Studies at Harvard Medical School have shown that when people are given a random list of words to memorize, those who then sleep will recall more words afterward than those who are tested without a chance to sack out.

Address your stress. Ever wonder why, when you're already having a maddening day, your memory goes on the blink, too? Blame the stress hormone cortisol. When you're on edge, it increases in the hippocampus — the brain's control center for learning and memory — and may interfere with encoding information or retrieving it. Cumulatively, this can be serious: "As you get older, chronic elevated cortisol levels are linked to memory impairment and a smaller hippocampus," says Shireen Sindi, a researcher in the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University. Another compelling reason to deal with issues that make you stressed.

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