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Five Steps to Better Memory

You've met her before. You can even remember where. But her name? It eludes you, taunting you, just out of reach.

Has this happened to you? Do you accept it as part of growing older? Ironically, this attitude may make things worse.

Aging can make it harder to remember some things. But by focusing on your potential and continuing to exercise your mind, you may be able to boost your memory power. Get started with these strategies:

1. Take on new challenges

Studies show that when researchers put adult mice and rats in a more stimulating environment, their brain structure changes in ways that enhance cell communication. That improves the animals' ability to learn and recall new behaviors.

These studies suggest that similar stimulation also may help humans. Doing more of one thing is not as helpful as taking on new learning activities. So, if you are good at crossword puzzles, for example, continue to do them, but add an additional mental challenge, such as learning a new language or computer skill.

2. Control stress

Studies show that anxiety hampers your memory. Our response to stress releases hormones known as glucocorticoids, which, in excess, can lead to damaged brain cells. As you age, it's best to have a plan for life’s stressors. While stress can't always be avoided, having some control over it is less of a burden to your body and mind. Stressful experiences, such as grief or moving, also may limit your ability to store and recall information.

If you're troubled by financial problems, for example, develop a detailed plan to reduce your expenses and debt.

3. Make the effort

Multiple methods of jogging your memory are available. Try some of them and see what works best for you. Some examples: “to do” lists, Post-it notes, alarm sets, calendars, pictures, and leaving items, such as keys, in the same place every day.

4. Use memory tricks

These techniques can help you recall things:

  • Visualization. Seeing a picture of a person may remind you of his or her name. You can be proactive and review the name before you enter into a situation where you will actually see the person.

  • Association. Connect things you're learning with something you already know. For example, if you are traveling to someone’s house, try to associate who lives there with the name of the street. Example: Tommy “Pleasant Street” Jones.

  • Organization. By keeping your important items--keys, glasses, and wallet--in one place, you always know where to find them. When writing your grocery list, group items by category.

5. Stay fit

Cardiovascular health is important to your memory because it allows the heart to effectively pump blood with nutrients and oxygen into the brain. Congestive heart failure and long-term untreated high blood pressure have been shown to hurt memory. To fuel your body and brain, eat healthy foods. Talk with your primary care provider about the right diet and exercise plan for you. Consider joining a fitness program for motivation and socialization, both which are proven to stimulate your brain.

While you're trying these strategies, focus on your capabilities and don't get discouraged.

Although studies have shown an association between these steps and a reduced risk for cognitive decline, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren't sure whether these factors can actually prevent cognitive decline or other diseases that affect cognition, such as Alzheimer's disease.

How age alters memory

Aging can affect your memory in several ways. Normal, age-related changes can mean it takes longer for older adults to learn new things. Given enough time, however, new information or skills can be learned. In addition, healthy older adults usually improve in some mental ability areas, such as remembering and using words. 

Memory problems can be caused by stress, depression, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and a range of other illnesses. Some drugs, including certain heart medications, antidepressants, and even cold remedies, also may hurt your memory.

Anything that depresses the system--alcohol, Valium, any kind of tranquilizer, any kind of sleeping pill--will depress the memory system.

When you begin any new drug or change dosage, keep an eye on your reactions. Even drugs not known to disrupt memory may affect yours. Drug interactions also may contribute to memory problems.

If you are concerned that you or someone you love has a memory problem, talk to your doctor. The doctor may be able to diagnose the problem, or refer you to a qualified specialist in neurology or geriatric psychiatry.