Memory Fitness

By Chandra Orr

June 3, 2011 6 min read

It's never too late to boost your brainpower. The brain thrives on challenge and variety, so amp up your attention span and maximize your memory with a daily mental workout.

"If you make it a point to work out your memory, you can, in fact, improve it at any age," says Chester Santos, the 2008 U.S. national memory champion. "The brain is very trainable. The more you force it to do something the better it gets at doing it."

"Regardless of age, our brains retain the ability to form new connections, called plasticity," explains Marc Agronin, author of "How We Age: A Doctor's Journey into the Heart of Growing Old." "By engaging in mentally stimulating activities, especially activities that are somewhat novel to our routine, we can build new connections and enhance our cognitive abilities. In this case, practice does indeed help make us more perfect."

*Practice Neurobics

Experts have long championed the use of crossword puzzles, sudoku and other brainteasers to keep the brain spry, but even simple challenges, such as eating a meal with your non-dominant hand or crocheting with your eyes closed, can have a surprising effect on your mental acuity. It's called neurobics.

"Neurobic exercises involve using one or more senses in a different way to engage the attention and change a routine -- for example, getting dressed in the dark or brushing teeth with the non-dominant hand," says Joanne Telser-Frere, co-director of CogFit-Quest, a cognitive fitness clinic. "These exercises cause the brain to create new neural pathways that help to strengthen cognitive skills."

The brain craves newness and novelty, so take a different route while walking the dog; shop at a new grocery; tap your fingers while listening to the rain; or skip your usual oatmeal and orange juice and try something new for breakfast. Anything that breaks up your routine and engages the senses gives the brain a workout.

*Play Memory Games

Train your brain by putting your memory to the test. Try memorizing random word lists -- for example, your weekly grocery list -- using the "story method." Tap into your visualization skills and your senses to create a story linking all the words in the list. When it's time to access the information, just review the story in your mind.

"This technique is extremely effective for recalling information because it gets many areas of the brain involved in the coding process. It also takes advantage of the psychological aspect of memory and makes memorizing things more enjoyable, thus encouraging continued memory exercise," Santos explains.

Such exercises help ward off the effects of aging.

"Memory-boosting activities help build new neurons that are then stored in the brain. This is what is known as cognitive reserve," Telser-Frere explains. "This reserve may help to ward off dementia by creating alternate neural pathways that are utilized when existing ones break down."

*Stay Social

Whether you're meeting new people at a weekly book club or chatting with old friends over lunch, socially engaging activities help flex your mental muscle.

"Socialization forces the brain to use much of the frontal lobe region, which performs executive functions, such as problem-solving and making social connections. It also regulates thinking about how to prioritize the day and anticipates what needs to be done," says Dr. Larry McCleary, author of "The Brain Trust Program."

To stay sharp, stay social. Make plans to meet up with friends each week; join a local seniors group; or just chat with a stranger while waiting in line.

*Don't Stress

Stress affects the brain's ability to form and retrieve memories, so schedule some time to unwind.

Over time, chronic exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, can shrink the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for consolidating information from both the long- and short-term memory, explains Brenda Stockdale, author of "You Can Beat the Odds: Surprising Factors Behind Chronic Illness and Cancer."

"Stress hormones act as battery acid on the memory center of the brain," Stockdale says. "Cortisol can block the chemicals necessary to 'lay down,' or create, a memory and block the chemical structure we need to retrieve a memory."

*Get Active

Aerobic exercise has a restorative effect on the brain and boosts its ability to form new memories, so take up tai chi; ride your bike through the park; or just go for a walk.

"A vigorous walk for 30 to 40 minutes is probably the best activity for brain stimulation," Agronin says. "It enhances blood flow to the brain, releases endorphins that stimulate brain activity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular events and diabetes that can prove so damaging to the brain."

Aerobic exercise also enhances growth factors in nerve cells, which strengthens the pathways between nerve cells and makes the cells function better, McCleary says.

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