A healthy lifestyle can support your brain health and even encourage your brain to grow new neurons, a process known as neuroplasticity.
Your brain’s hippocampus, i.e. the memory center, regenerates throughout your entire lifetime (even into your 90s), provided you give it the right tools to do so
Lifestyle factors that may improve memory and promote neurogenesis include exercise, eating right, and getting proper sleep
Other memory tricks include avoiding multitasking, learning a new skill, playing brain games and using mnemonics to help you remember information.
The foods you eat – and don’t eat – play a crucial role in your memory. Fresh vegetables are essential, as are healthy fats and avoiding sugar and grain carbohydrates. You can find detailed information about nine foods for brainpower here.
For instance, curry, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, and walnuts contain antioxidants and other compounds that protect your brain health and may even stimulate the
production of new brain cells.
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by stimulating nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.
During exercise nerve, cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One, in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and directly benefits cognitive functions, including learning.
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible. Ultimately, multitasking may actually slow you down, make you prone to errors as well as make you forgetful.
Research shows you actually need about eight seconds to commit a piece of information to your memory, so if you’re talking on your phone and carrying in groceries when you put down your car keys, you’re unlikely to remember where you left them.
The opposite of multitasking would be mindfulness, which helps you achieve undistracted focus. Students who took a mindfulness class improved reading comprehension test scores and working memory capacity, as well as experienced fewer distracting thoughts.
“If you find yourself trying to complete five tasks at once, stop yourself and focus your attention back to the task at hand. If distracting thoughts enter your head, remind yourself that these are only “projections,” not really, and allow them to pass by without stressing you out. You can then end your day with a 10- or 15-minute meditation session to help stop your mind from wandering and relax into a restful sleep.”
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Research from Harvard indicates that people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas after sleeping, but few realize that their performance has actually improved. Sleep is also known to enhance your memories and help you “practice” and improve your performance of challenging skills. In fact, a single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day.
The process of brain growth, or neuroplasticity, is believed to underlie your brain’s capacity to control behavior, including learning and memory. Plasticity occurs when neurons are stimulated by events, or information, from the environment. However, sleep and sleep loss modify the expression of several genes and gene products that may be
important for synaptic plasticity.
Furthermore, certain forms of long-term potentiating, a neural process associated with the laying down of learning and memory, can be elicited in sleep, suggesting synaptic connections are strengthened while you slumber.
As you might suspect, this holds true for infants too, and research shows that naps can give a boost to babies’ brainpower. Specifically, infants who slept in between learning and testing sessions had a better ability to recognize patterns in new information, which signals an important change in memory that plays an essential role in cognitive development.
There’s reason to believe this holds true for adults, too, as even among adults, a mid-day nap was found to dramatically boost and restore brainpower.5 You can find 33 tips to help you get the shut-eye you need here.
Play Brain Games
If you don’t sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate. What research into brain plasticity shows us, however, is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration.
One way to challenge your brain is via ‘brain games,’ which you can play online via Web sites like Lumosity.com. Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who I interviewed two years ago, has pioneered research in brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity) for more than 30 years, has also developed a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more.
The program is called Brain HQ, and the website has many different exercises designed to improve brain function and it also allows you to track and monitor your progress over time. While there are many similar sites on the Web, Brain HQ is one of the oldest and most widely used.
If you decide to try brain games, ideally it would be wise to invest at least 20 minutes a day, but no more than five to seven minutes is to be spent on a specific task. When you spend longer amounts of time on a task, the benefits weaken. According to Dr. Merzenich, the primary benefits occur in the first five or six minutes of the task. The only downside to brain games is that it may become just another “task” you need to fit into an already busy day. If you don’t enjoy brain games, you can also try learning a new skill or hobby.
Master a New Skill
Engaging in “purposeful and meaningful activities” stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces the risk of dementia and enhances health and well-being. A key factor necessary for improving your brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention.
For instance, one study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having a mild cognitive impairment. The Another study, published earlier this year, found that taking part in “cognitively demanding” activities like learning to quilt or take digital photography enhanced memory function in older adults. The key is to find an activity that is mentally stimulating for you. Ideally, this should be something that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction… it should be an activity that you look forward to doing, such as playing a musical instrument, gardening, building model ships, crafting or many others.
Try Mnemonic Devices
Mnemonic devices are memory tools to help you remember words, information or concepts. They help you to organize information into an easier-to-remember format. Try:
- Acronyms (such as PUG for “pick up grapes”)
- Visualizations (such as imagining a tooth to remember your dentist’s appointment)
- Rhymes (if you need to remember a name, for instance, think “Shirley’s hair is curly)
- Chunking, which is breaking up information into smaller “chunks” (such as organizing numbers into the format of a phone number?)