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How Fit Is Your Memory?

Want to be able to remember information better? Take your brain to boot camp.

She walks into your class and you know she’s been there twice before. You even talked to her about . . . something. What was it again? Was she the one with the shoulder injury—or was it her knee? Why can’t you remember?

The good news is that forgetting this kind of information is common—and generally not cause to fear that you’re on the brink of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The bad news is that memory lapses are typically a sign of the gradual aging of the brain, a human phenomenon that affects everyone.

Understanding how your memory deteriorates and learning strategies to combat the decline can greatly improve your ability to remember crucial information about clients.

The Aging Brain

“Studies show that the brain-aging process begins as early as our 20s,” says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Prescription (Hyperion 2004) and The Memory Bible (Hyperion 2002). “As our neurons age and die, the size of the brain shrinks and accumulates lesions known as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These plaques and tangles are believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Every brain ages differently, and whether or not it will reach the plaque-and-tangle threshold that results in Alzheimer’s depends on a variety of factors. “For the average person, only about one-third of the rate our brain ages and of our risk of dementia comes from genetics,” says Small. “Two-thirds has to do with our environment and the lifestyle choices we make today. We’re learning from research that we have more control over our memory than most of us realize.”

The Memory Fitness Movement

As mounting scientific evidence shows that prevention may work as well for the brain as it does for the heart, more people are taking steps to preserve their memory and their overall brain health, according to Small.

In fact, mental-fitness efforts appear to produce surprisingly powerful results. At UCLA, brain stress tests and MRI brain-imaging tests indicated that after just 2 weeks of memory training (involving diet, exercise, stress reduction and mental-fitness training), volunteers showed dramatically improved memory performance and brain efficiency, scoring higher on memory tasks and using less brainpower to do it.

“What surprised me is how powerful these approaches are,” says Small, who has been studying memory for over two decades. “The effects were more profound than those we’ve seen with medication. Of course, biological study and drug intervention are still critical, but the research on the impact of lifestyle factors is so strong that it’s even changed the way I view the area of memory improvement and Alzheimer’s prevention.”

Keeping Your Memory Strong

Experts agree that although the process of improving memory is different for everyone, healthy eating, physical exercise, stress reduction and mental-fitness exercises should all be part of any “boot camp for the brain” program.

For example, Small’s 14-day memory-improvement plan, described in The Memory Prescription, includes an antioxidant-rich diet high in vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish, moderate in alcohol consumption and low in meat and high-fat dairy products; a comprehensive fitness program; stress reduction and relaxation through activities like breathing exercises, yoga and meditation; and 15–30 minutes per day of mental-fitness exercises, such as brain teasers, puzzles, and word and image recall tests.

Of course, you’re already well aware of the power of fitness, healthy eating and stress reduction—but what can you do to improve your ability to remember clients’ names, health histories and other important information? Practicing these three steps will help you pump up your memory muscles.

Memory Helper #1: Pay Attention

“The single biggest reason people don’t remember is that they don’t pay attention,” says Small. John B. Arden, PhD, is director of training for psychology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in Northern California and author of Improving Your Memory for Dummies (Wiley Publishing 2002). “Paying attention is the gateway to memory,” he says. “You need to be present, not absent, in the moment. Practices such as meditation, relaxation and stress reduction techniques can be very helpful for developing the ability to focus and be attentive. If you’re thinking about your dentist appointment while you greet a new student, you won’t remember anything [about him]. But if you pay attention to the way he moves, how he dresses or how his voice sounds, you’ll be able to create a powerful memory.”

Memory Helper #2: Connect to a Word or Image Cue

The next step to improving memory is to make the experience relevant to you through the use of mnemonics—that is, by creating an image or word cue to refer to when you want to recall the memory. Explains Arden, “The more relevant the cue is to you, the more able you will be to remember it. As a fitness professional, you may be very aware of people’s posture, physique or style of movement. Perhaps the new student, whose name is Bill, has a fluid way of moving that reminds you of a dance instructor you knew in college named Bill. Maybe his name is Greg and you notice he has a strong grip, so you link ‘Greg-grip.’ If his name is Joe and his body language is relaxed, you may remember, ‘Joe goes with the flow.’ Or his name is Steve and he wears sweats that remind you of your favorite pair, so you link that image and the comfortable feeling of your sweats with the name ‘Steve.’”

The more rich and multidimensional your mental connection or image is, the stronger the memory will be. For example, if you want to remember that a personal training client has two kids, loves to ski and has a knee injury, you may create an image of her wearing a giant knee bandage as she skis with her kids down your favorite slope. “If you exaggerate the image, you’re more likely to remember it,” says Arden.

Daniel L. Schacter, MD, chair of the department of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin 2001), agrees that vivid imagery is a highly useful memory-encoding tool. “Asking questions about what you wish to remember will force you to elaborate on it. For example, what are the distinctive facial features, what acquaintance does she remind me of, and what are the similarities and differences?”

The ability to create these elaborate images may well be more powerful than any herb, hormone or gene, notes Schacter. “Given a choice between taking gin-kgo or investing some time and effort into developing elaborate encoding strategies, healthy people would be well advised to focus on the latter approach.”

Memory Helper #3: Use It or Lose It

Repeating a name, or reviewing information or an image, helps it stick. “When you remember something, a cluster of neurons is firing together, and the more often they fire together, the easier it is for them to fire together again,” says Arden. “In other words, the more you practice remembering something, the easier it is to remember.”

Because memory has to be practiced to be preserved, it’s important to be wary of multitasking and media overload. “Recent research has made it clear that divided attention dampens memory. Even if you can do 10 things at once throughout the day, the depth to which you remember any of it is likely to decrease,” says Arden. “Overstimulation by media can create a numbness that hinders your ability to remember, because you’re not absorbing information—you’re just being bombarded by it.”

Causes for Concern

If you can’t remember details as well as in the past, should you be worried? As noted memory neuropsychology researcher Daniel L. Schacter, MD, chair of the department of psychology at Harvard University, says, “If you forget where you put your car keys, don’t worry. If you forget you own a car, worry.”

The following types of memory loss can signal that medical help may be warranted, according to John B. Arden, PhD, director of training for psychology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers in Northern California:

  • repeatedly getting lost on a familiar route
  • having difficulty finding words to express yourself
  • being unable to identify common objects
  • not knowing where you are or what time of day it is
  • asking the same question over and over (when you’re not trying to get a different answer)

Any abrupt and severe loss of memory indicates that you should consult a doctor immediately.


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