Unlike the memory experts who perform tricks on stage and television, Lynn Stern spends many hours each week actually helping people who have memory problems. In her 20 years the University of Michigan's Turner Clinic, Stern has learned what works-and what doesn't-to improve memory.

She says that scientists do not understand exactly how it happens, but as we get older, nearly everyone's memory slowly undergoes certain changes...

It becomes harder to remember words that were once familiar to you-a friend's maiden name, for example, or the type of dog your uncle had as a pet.

Learning something new takes more effort than it used to.

You increasingly forget items on your schedule, such as the need to pay a bill by a certain date.

You have more difficulty paying attention to more than one thing at a time-carrying on a conversation while you are watching TV, for example.

While these memory changes are common, it still may be wise to consult your physician. In most cases, the doctor will reassure you that some memory difficulties are normal as you age. In some cases, he/she may recommend medical tests if they suspect the onset of Alzheimer's disease or another serious condition.

Protecting Memory

You can't reverse memory changes, but following are five sure ways to dramatically slow them down...

Learn something new. Scientists aren't certain of the reason, but research indicates that learning a new language, craft, game or other skill slows memory loss.

It's generally more effective to learn a new skill than to enhance one you already have. An accountant, for instance, probably wouldn't benefit as much from learning calculus as from studying a foreign language, while a person who already knows two languages would not benefit as much from studying a third one as he/she would from, say, learning to play bridge.

Challenge: Motivating yourself to learn something new. Choose a skill that you'll enjoy using once you learn it. If you learn a language, plan a trip to a country where it's spoken. If you learn bridge, join a bridge club where you can meet new people.

Play challenging games. Games such as bridge, Go (an ancient Chinese board game), crossword puzzles and Scrabble can strengthen memory, especially the type of memory required for the game itself.

Working crossword puzzles, for example, has been proven to help with verbal recognition. But such proficiency at crosswords is unlikely to help you remember the phone numbers of close friends and relatives. If that's a problem for you, devise a challenge by writing down the phone numbers and then trying once or twice a week to repeat them from memory.

Or if you have trouble recalling names of new people you meet, jot them down and test yourself periodically in the same way.

Socialize with friends, new and old. Socializing-no matter how you do it or how often-helps slow down memory changes because it always requires the use of memory. It's all but impossible to carry on a conversation without referring to people and events that you have stored in memory.

Moreover, talking to friends about what you've read in the newspaper or seen on TV reinforces those facts in your mind.

Stay physically active. According to researchers at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, people who engage in physical activity-regardless of the type or amount-are more likely to maintain their memory and other mental abilities.

Organize important activities around your most alert time periods. Almost everyone has a time of day when he/she is most alert. it's usually impossible to cram all important activities into that time slot, but try to reserve that period for important tasks, such as caring for a grandchild or driving.

Also try to learn new skills during your most alert times. For example, if you want to study acting and have a choice between a morning or an afternoon class, choose the time when you usually feel more alert.

Smart move: Ask your doctor whether any medication you're taking can impair memory. This effect occurs most often with prescription medications for sleeping problems, anxiety, muscle tension, allergies, colds and pain.

If the answer is "yes," ask if another drug with out this side effect is available. Should you opt to continue the medication, at least you'll know that related memory problems are likely to stop when you stop taking it.

Memory Triggers

Fortunately, most memory changes occur over a period of many years, and this usually gives you time to adapt before they become serious. Successful strategies...

Do something unusual to trigger your memory. For example, to remember to stop at the grocery store on the way home from work, switch your watch from one wrist to the other earlier in the day. The mild but nagging discomfort acts as a reminder.

Yes, you may occasionally forget what it was you were supposed to remember, but with a little thought it usually will come back.

Other memory triggers: Be organized-always put your glasses, keys, etc., in the same place. Say what you want to remember aloud or write it down-both actions will reinforce it in your memory.

Write down information you may need in the future in one compact notebook. If you order a product over the phone, jot down the phone number and the name of the person you spoke with. And if you meet interesting people al a party, put their names and phone numbers in the notebook.

Information like this too often winds up on scraps of paper stored in dozens of places around the house. By using a single notebook, however you can easily refer to it as the information becomes necessary.

Also helpful: A date for each entry to make it easier to look up information. And when one book fills up, store it in a designated place and start another.

Jot down information next to names in your personal phone book, such as birthdays, anniversaries and the names of children that are too easy to forget as families grow larger and grow apart, too.

Avoid procrastination. If you put off doing something, chances increase that you will forget it altogether.

There's no simple way to change the habits of a lifetime, but if you're prone to procrastination, post reminders of appointments and upcoming events on the bathroom mirror and in other places where you regularly look.

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