Change your mind: memory tips and tricks

When you challenge your mind, you build up a collection of memory strategies - a "cognitive reserve," if you will. So when you're faced with struggles to remember something, you can have plenty of tricks up your sleeve to help you through.

With most of the healthy habits mentioned here, memory is an active pursuit, like exercising, eating right, and socializing. But the mental work of memory building - that's memory as a thing; a set of skills to be learned. And there's no truth to the old saying about old dogs and new tricks! Learning remains possible as we age. By practicing brain-boosting strategies, we may actually be able to "change our minds" - to create new connections between our brain cells.

Organize your brain's filing cabinet: As we get older, it's common to have trouble fetching facts from our brains. Since our retrieval skills slip gradually, we may not even notice the change. To keep retrieval sharp, try these tricks:

  • file memories well: Just like it's easier to find a file in a neatly organized filing cabinet, it can be easier to retrieve a memory if we file it in the right way. When you learn something new, put it together with something you already know. Attach a word, picture, or memory to it. To remember where you parked at the mall, look around for guideposts - signs, numbers, natural landmarks. Or if you meet a woman named Florence, remember her name by thinking of a trip you took to Italy or envision a bouquet of flowers. Or file her face away with other folks you know whose names begin with "F."
  • say your ABCs: Stuck for Florence's name when you run into her at the post office? Go through the alphabet in your head until you hit on a letter that feels familiar. Same trick works for recalling which movie you saw that character actor in or which month your niece's birthday falls in.
  • access memories often: The memories we turn to less often will tend to fade into the background, but those we use repeatedly tend to stick. So, if there's a memory you want to hold, repeat it and rehearse it in your mind. Do this with phone numbers, addresses, names, or rules for an upcoming driving test.

Organize your environment: You may feel surprised or downright upset when you can't track your keys for the umpteenth time. "What's wrong with me? Am I losing it?" you may wonder. But maybe it's not your brain that's out of order. Maybe it's just your environment. Set aside one (and only one) spot in your home where you stash your keys. Post refrigerator reminders or set alerts on your smartphone for refilling prescriptions or restocking your laundry room.

Work and play with your brain: Like an unexpected challenge, engaging in brain-bending problem-solving activities can build new connections and improve memory retention. Give yourself permission to play games and solve puzzles. Crosswords, Sudoku, trivia challenges, reading – anything that perplexes and poses questions will do the trick. Add in a social component to your mental exercises, like joining a book club, taking a course to learn a new language, or competing in a trivia competition.

Look to the future: Prospective memory – the ability to remember to do something in the future – may slip as we age. Any way you can grab onto the future, do it! Calendars, AI virtual assistants, and reminder apps can help day-to-day, as can any old-fashioned written reminders like to-do lists and grocery lists. And it wouldn't hurt to practice the tricks mentioned above for these types of new memories. Worried about remembering to go to your dentist appointment next Thursday afternoon? Picture your dentist acting on your favourite show that you watch on Thursday nights. Or repeat "3 pm Thursday" over and over until it's impossible to forget!

Look to the past: Jotting down lists is one way to keep track of future events, but what about remembering the past? So-called remote memories – childhood stories, the first day you met your mate, your post-university jaunt around Europe – can sometimes fade, too. Indulging in nostalgia and writing down memories can help us to hold onto those distant events. Dig up old, tattered letters or newspaper clippings you snipped out years ago. Choose a journal to pen your personal memoirs or open up a word processing document on your computer. Pull out your old diaries from high school or socialize with friends and family on social media, at reunions, or over coffee.

Embrace unexpected challenges: While routine is a strong memory booster, breaking your routines can be just the jolt your brain needs sometimes. Travel to a new place, even if it's just in your own hometown. Shop at a different grocery store or take a switched-up, back-road route to a place you visit often. Take a bus tour, a cruise, or take in a show at a local theatre. Your brain loves a challenge, and new experiences make for a great mental workout.

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