Building and Maintaining Your Memory
By Grey R. Larison, Ph.D.
Throughout our daily lives there are times when memory fails us, but we continue to move right along with our day. Forgetting doesn’t seem to bother us when we’re children or young adults, but as you move into middle age and beyond those lapses seem to take on more meaning. When we cannot recall the name of a familiar person, or a place that we love to go, we begin to worry about the state of our memory and mind. “I’m having a senior moment” is a popular phrase that we hear in social gatherings when one experiences a public memory lapse.
Memory is the process by which information is retained, stored and later retrieved as needed. It is a crucial component to the whole learning process, and as you might expect, one’s power at learning and remembering new information is at a peak in late adolescence and early adulthood. With aging, the speed with which new information is processed and stored slows down, but one doesn’t normally lose the ability to learn and store new information. When there are no major diseases present, cognitive function and memory can be maintained well into old age – but, you have to use it, or you lose it!
Maintaining your memory and your ability to learn new concepts requires that you keep your mind active throughout your lifespan. Optimal mental functioning requires mental stimulation, proper nutrition, quality sleep, exercise, and social interaction. You should also keep in mind that some medications, and alcohol, can impair your ability to learn and retain new material.
Learning stimulates your brain to make new connections and strengthen existing ones. One of the surest ways of maintaining your mental acuity is to be actively learning throughout life. Go ahead, make the decision to learn to play that guitar, learn to dance, learn Spanish before your trip to Mexico, or whatever sparks your imagination. Reading good literature, joining a book discussion group, or taking classes at the local community college will all stimulate cognitive growth and improved memory skills.
One of the very best ways to exercise your brain is through Neurofeedback training. This is a form of biofeedback that utilizes computer technology to give you feedback on exactly what your brain is doing from moment-to-moment. It teaches you to be able to move your mental energy to where it is needed for efficient processing of new information and the retrieval of stored memories. Weekly training can promote mental and emotional balance, and strengthen all of our cognitive abilities – including our memory.
Nutrition is critical to optimal brain functioning as well. The B vitamins are essential for the formation of healthy nerve cells and the body’s energy system. Whole grain foods, dried beans and some vegetables are good sources of B vitamins, but most Americans don’t eat enough of those foods to obtain adequate levels of these vitamins. The brain also needs adequate supplies of protein (i.e. the amino acids) and the omega3 fatty acids (cold water fish oil and lecithin) to build healthy cell membranes, the insulating myelin sheath and the neurotransmitters necessary for smooth nervous system functioning. Finally, you need to have a balance of calcium and magnesium from your daily diet to fuel the actual electrical signal on each nerve cell.
Since most Americans do not eat according to the USDA’s Food Pyramid and, therefore, get inadequate nutrition for maintaining a healthy body, I recommend that people include a supplement program in their daily routine. A natural B-complex tablet with each meal, a serving of distilled fish oil (in capsules) a day, lecithin (in capsules or as granules sprinkled on food), and calcium/magnesium tablets each day should keep your brain in fine shape. For the elderly, and those with known narrowing of the arteries, taking the herbal product, Ginkgo biloba, will help relax the arteries and promote better blood flow to the brain and the other extremities of the body. In Germany, it is approved for treating many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Proper sleep is very important for our body and brain. During sleep, the brain has time to work through the information it has acquired during the day and integrate it with material already in long-term memory. Without this time to process the new information, it may never make it into memory and therefore by irretrievable later. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is crucial to mental and physical health: go to bed and arise at the same time every day; sleep in a dark, quiet room; if you need to eat before bedtime, make it a small protein snack – avoid carbohydrates; and give yourself the opportunity to sleep eight hours each night.
“Senior moments” do not need to be hallmarks of your daily functioning. Feed your brain new mental challenges and good nutrition, while insuring that it has good rest and oxygen flow, and your mind will remain sharp throughout your entire lifespan.