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Health & Balance

Improve Your Memory

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

Eat to your brain's content. Foods that keep your heart healthy are also good for your brain. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (including sardines and salmon) fight artery-damaging inflammation. Ditto for walnuts. Berries, especially blueberries, are loaded with anthocyanins — potent antioxidants that protect cells, including those in the brain. Blueberries may also have the power to create new pathways for connection in the brain: These connectors tend to die off with age, but in animal studies, blueberry consumption has been shown to help restore them, says Jim Joseph, Ph.D., director of the neuroscience lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University.

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