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Improve Your Memory

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

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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.

Take a walk (down memory lane). When you exercise, your brain gets a workout of its own. A new study of 161 adults ages 59 to 81 found that the hippocampus was larger in those who were physically active. "Fitness improvement — even if you've been sedentary most of your life — leads to an increase in volume of this brain region," explains Art Kramer, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois and coauthor of the study. And the bigger the hippocampus, the better able you are to form new memories. You don't have to live at the gym. "Just get out and walk for an hour a few days a week," says Kramer.

Practice paying attention. What color hair did the barista who made your latte this morning have? Was your husband wearing a blue or red tie? Even if you'll never need the information, forcing yourself to observe and recall the details of your day sharpens your memory, says Dr. Small.

Play mind games. Doing something mentally challenging — working a crossword puzzle, learning an instrument — creates fresh connections in your brain. "You can actually generate new cells in the hippocampus," says Peter Snyder, Ph.D., professor of clinical neurosciences at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine at Brown University. Those new cells build cognitive reserves that are important for creating new memories and may protect against memory loss — even dementia — later in life. Games that work to improve processing speed may deliver an extra boost, Smith has found. In a group of older adults, his (company-funded) studies of the computer game Brain Fitness showed that players had a significant improvement in cognitive skills, including memory, compared with those in a control group. Anything that requires working against the clock can help. "A timed game like Boggle or Simon will force you to pay attention, work quickly, and think flexibly," says Green.

Test Your Memory

You need about 30 minutes for this quiz (although the exercise itself takes less than five). Set a timer for two minutes, then study the words below. When the bell rings, put the list aside and do something else that will distract you — check e-mail, read the paper. Twenty minutes later, write down as many of the words as you remember (in any order):

  • Violin
  • Balloon
  • Stereo
  • Building
  • Strawberry
  • Cradle
  • Mast
  • Lizard
  • Teacher
  • Oven

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