It’s possible to keep your memory as sharp as your wits well into your golden years, but it’s not exactly effortless. Like your muscles, your brain needs training to stay strong. This is not just my belief, it’s an opinion shared by one of the leading neuroscientists of our time.
Dr. Richard Restak is a neurologist and best-selling author of 20 books about the human brain. His latest publication is titled “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind.” In this hands-on guide, Dr. Restak outlines the best and worst things one can do to their memory. In a recent piece for CNBC, he writes, “As a neuroscientist, I’ve spent decades guiding patients with memory problems through brain-enhancing habits and exercises — many of which I practice, too.” Curious to find out what those brain-enhancing tips are? Then continue reading.
Memory exercises lie at the core of Dr. Restak’s system for preserving memory. One of the most effective ways to train your memory on a daily basis is by reading literary works of fiction. Novels are especially recommended because these long fictional texts typically include many plots and characters and require the reader to keep track of a lot of information.
“I’ve noticed over my years as a neuropsychiatrist that people with early dementia, as one of the first signs of the encroaching illness, often stop reading novels,” Dr. Restak writes. Hence, he advises his patients to read fiction to keep their brains engaged.
Following recipes in a cookbook or online has a similar benefit. This activity requires you to prepare various ingredients and coordinate several processes at the same time. Like reading fiction, this activity involves working memory — a type of memory that requires one to hold small bits of information in the mind and use them to complete cognitive tasks. Working memory is an important element of learning and the type of memory we associate with intelligence. Sadly, it’s one of the cognitive faculties affected early on by dementia.
Apart from giving you a feeling of a clear and refreshed mind, naps are also beneficial for your memory. During sleep, the brain consolidates memories. Hence, taking a short nap in preparation for an important meeting or after learning any new task can help you memorize the information you learned faster.
Usually, the most convenient time to fit in a daily nap is the afternoon – between 1-4 PM – as we all tend to get a bit drowsy after lunch. Dr. Restak advises keeping naps short: from 30 to 90 minutes.
Related article: 8 Everyday Behaviors That Mess With Your Memory
Sometimes, what we believe is a problem with memory is actually a matter of the senses. Think about it. It makes intuitive sense that you have trouble remembering something you didn’t see or hear clearly.
However, in many ways, hearing plays an even more critical role in dementia and especially Alzheimer’s disease. Having poor hearing increases one’s risk of Alzheimer’s. “Poor hearing is among 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia,” quoting a 2020 commission report in The Lancet. The word “modifiable” means that you can reduce its impact and the resulting risk, in this case, through the use of a hearing aid.
In his book, Dr. Restak calls alcohol the killer of brain cells, referring to its effect as a mild neurotoxin. And since we all know that nerve cells regenerate very slowly, it’s no surprise that a person’s brain can become severely affected by alcohol if they’ve been drinking for decades. For this reason, the neuroscientist recommends that older adults stop consuming alcohol by age 70.
Dr. Restak also subscribes to the healthy BRAIN FOODS acronym invented by Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. It goes like this:
In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Restak said that "Inattention is the biggest cause for memory difficulties." In a noisy and crowded room, you’ll be less likely to remember what was said simply because it was more difficult for you to focus on the words. In a way, you can’t possibly recall some memories because you didn't get to properly memorize them because you were distracted.
And just like in this crowded room analogy, the best solution to an inattention issue is to remove all the unnecessary noise. Slow down and really focus on one thing at a time – be it a chore you discussed with your spouse, your weekly shopping list, or someone’s phone number.
One noteworthy cause of such memory issues is something Dr. Restak calls technological distortions. This refers to the habit of overly relying on smartphones and other devices to store information we once had to hold in our heads. A shopping list is a great example of this. In order to activate and challenge your memory, try and remember everything you need to purchase at the store when shopping, and only then reach for the phone to double-check.
Our minds work by creating associations, and you can utilize this tendency of the human brain to memorize difficult words and other information. The more bizarre and dramatic the image, the easier it will be to recall. "Get in the habit of converting anything which you find hard to remember into a wild, bizarre or otherwise attention-grabbing image," the neuroscientist writes in The Complete Guide to Memory.
To try this, ask yourself what the word sounds or looks like. For example, I’ve always had the hardest time memorizing the word cheetah. It was only when I imagined a cheetah as a cat cheating in a game of poker that the name was finally set in my mind.
Related article: Here Are 9 Easy Tips That'll Help You Improve Your Memory!
Crosswords, sudoku, chess, and brain teasers exist for a reason, but they are not the only way to maintain an active working memory. Dr. Restak has a great many exercises in his book. We’ll list two of our favorites here as well.
Mental exercise number one is pretty simple – try and name all the US presidents from George Washington to Joe Biden. That’s okay if you don’t get them all at first. Still, try this next: name all the presidents you listed in reverse or alphabetical order. This is a short but powerful memory workout!
The second activity I love is 20 Questions. In the game, one person leaves the room, whereas the other players mutually select something (a thing, place, or person). When they’re ready, the questioner returns; he or she can ask 20 or fewer questions to guess the thing, place, or person. If the questioner wins, the next person takes over his or her role. It’s a fun one to play on family nights.
Practice these memory-boosting activities on a daily basis, and you’re sure to notice the benefits!
References: The Complete Guide to Memory, CNBC, The New York Times