When it comes to fitness, don’t forget to train your brainDon’t ForgetLocal Experts Say It’s Possible to Improve Your Memory with Brain Training By Triston V. Sanders
Have you ever bumped into a person and can’t remember his or her name? How often do you forget where you parked the car at the mall or grocery store? Do you frequently lose your glasses, keys or other items?
Most of us admit we have a problem with our memory every so often. But is there a way to flex our memory muscles, just as we go to the gym to strengthen our bodies? It’s an important question that is being asked by researchers who are on a quest to unlock the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia among older adults. It affects parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language and can seriously diminish a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
Although scientists are learning more every day, right now they still do not know what causes Alzheimer’s disease. As many as 5 million Americans suffer from this debilitating disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
K. Anders Ericsson is the Conradi Eminent Scholar in Psychology at Florida State University. Currently he and a Chinese researcher are studying a Chinese student who has memorized more than 60,000 random decimals of the mathematical constant pi. Their research has shown the student’s memory is not abnormal; rather, his amazing memory is the results of years of training using mnemonics.
A mnemonic is the process or technique of improving or developing one’s memory. Ericsson says effective memory is based on meaningful associations.
“Most information is inherently meaningful, such as hearing that a friend is getting married,” he explains. “Some information — such as names of people and streets, shopping lists and phone numbers — lack immediate meaning. For that type of seemingly meaningless information, methods for creating meaningful association are useful.
“There are many different memory techniques, depending on the type of material and in what context one needs to recall it,” Ericsson says. “For example, an effective technique to learn somebody’s name involves associating it with a related, meaningful word. My name is Ericsson, and some might know the cell phone company Ericsson. To remember my name, one can imagine my face with a cell phone in my mouth. Next time you see me, you will be reminded of the image with the cell phone in my mouth, and then you can recall my last name.”
Ericsson adds that, just as with muscular strength, your ability to remember increases when you exercise your memory.
“There are some interesting parallels between physical exercise and memory,” he says. “If you are a couch potato and never engage in vigorous physical activity, your strength and conditioning will be poor. If you engage in some activity, such as tennis, you will be able to maintain a decent level of performance, but that level of performance will not necessarily translate to other activities, such as swimming and raking your yard.”
If you want to improve strength, Ericsson says, “you need to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and you will get gains for the activity that you train. Similarly, you can improve your memory by training the memory with the particular types of information that you want to improve.”
Tallahassee resident Beatriz M. Miyar took a special interest in memory when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in December 2006. Miyar has been working with her mother on ways to improve her memory and slow the development of the disease in a holistic manner. Miyar’s primary area of research was holistic medicine when she earned her Ph.D. in adult and continuing education. In her field, she practices and teaches “lifelong learning.” She continues doing research and has created a nonprofit group now in development called Healing Futures Institute to support research and educate the public on holistic medicine.
Miyar believes people can improve their memories with a holistic approach.
“Holistic medicine implies the interconnectedness of mind, body, spirit and emotions — and the power of each to affect the other, thus treating the body as a whole being,” she says. “The focus is in bringing balance — healing (from an imbalance/illness) — at its source by triggering the innate abilities of the body to heal itself.”
Miyar contends memory can be improved when a person eats a proper diet, takes vitamins and supplements, exercises and uses techniques to deal with stress — stress and fatigue are key culprits in memory decline.
“Physical exercise is very important; it increases the amount of oxygen that goes into our brain,” she says. “Oxygen is our lifeline. Increasing intake via exercising (and) different breathing techniques is crucial.”
There is much debate about whether certain foods or dietary supplements can improve or maintain memory. Ericsson says that other than a healthy diet and exercise, he doesn’t know of any other advantages that can come from specific foods or supplements.
But Miyar says her personal experience with her 88-year-old mother points to other conclusions.
“Her memory and ability to function were rapidly declining since her diagnosis in 2006. Six months into this, I took her to a holistic cardiologist in Miami, Dr. Roy Heilbron, who immediately took her off Lipitor — saying it robs the mind of its memory — and put her on different supplements …. (He explained) these supplements would help increase the oxygen flow to the brain, allowing the pharmaceutical drugs for memory (Aricept and Namenda) that she was taking to do a better job. Within three months of taking these supplements, her physical energy and mental cognition noticeably increased. She will tell you that these supplements are what are keeping her so well.”
Dr. Angela Spencer, the director of the Stroke Program and the Memory Clinic Director at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, says she believes we all can improve our memory.
“The brain has a remarkable plasticity,” she explains. “We know after stroke some of the previously functioning brain cells die, yet survivors often recover most of their lost faculties as the surrounding, unaffected brain cells may take over the work of the injured or dead cells. This includes not only the physical but the mental functions, such as speech, thinking, etc.
“Much as we nourish and exercise a muscle before and while demanding extra performance from it, we do the same for the brain,” she says. “It is logical that we cannot go wrong by mental exercises.”
Ericsson says his research has found that if people practice their memory for a particular task, then their performance in that task improves.
“Doing crosswords leads one to be better at doing crosswords,” he says. “The best strategy is to practice those situations that one wants to improve one’s memory in. There does not seem to be any training that improves memory across the board.
“Organizing one’s life, such as parking in similar places even if it means walking a bit longer, reduces the need for memory,” Ericsson says. “Similarly, returning objects to their correct place will reduce memory for where you last put it.”
His advice for people wanting to improve their memory?
Pick out some tasks that you are motivated to improve or material you want to remember.
Look up some of the good books on how best to improve memory for that type of task or material.
Set aside 10 to 15 minutes each day when your mind is the most fresh and train your memory with the best exercises.
Ericsson says that if a person maintains this practice schedule, his or her memory will improve.
After all is said and done, hopefully one day you’ll be able to say, “Thanks for the memories!”
Contributing writer Triston V. Sanders is an executive producer and news anchor for WCTV. Watch her televised medical segment, “Health Matters,” weekday mornings on “The Good Morning Show” on WCTV. Want a Mental Workout?
Use these cognitive-training websites (some are pay sites):
Ways to help your memory:
» Learn a new skill.
» Volunteer in your community, school or place of worship.
» Spend time with friends and family whenever possible.
» Use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists and notes to yourself.
» Put your wallet or purse, keys and glasses in the same place each day.
» Get lots of rest.
» Exercise and eat well.
» Don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
» Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time. (According to the National Institute on Aging)
What should I do if I’m worried about my memory?
See your doctor. If your doctor thinks it’s serious, you may need to have a complete checkup, including blood and urine tests. You also may need to take tests that check your memory, problem-solving, counting and language skills. In addition, you may need a CAT scan of the brain, which can show normal and problem areas. Once the doctor finds out what is causing your memory problems, ask about what is the best treatment for you. (According to the National Institute on Aging)