Whether you’re frustrated by your own forgetfulness or just want to be able to recall facts and faces, nothing is worse than dealing with mental fog.
Declining brain function is, of course, one of the biggest fears people have as they get older. But, there are several ways to keep your brain sharp, flexible, and ready to take on more information.
Memory isn’t a fixed state. It’s better to think of it in the same way you might view muscle strength; the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. It’s a real “use it or lose it” game, here.
That said, the secret doesn’t necessarily lie in brain training apps (sorry, Lumosity). While you might feel like you’re improving as you make your way through a series of games, brain teasers really just make you better at solving a specific kind of puzzle.
Instead, the best ways to boost your memory retention is to one — take care of yourself — and two, push that brain to new limits.
With that in mind, here are our top five ways (backed by science) to boost your memory.
5 scientifically-backed ways to improve memory
1. Learn a new skill
One piece of the memory-boosting puzzle is neuroplasticity. This term refers to this idea that challenging your brain in new ways allows you to improve your memory retention and general cognition. Basically, there’s hope that you can change your brain — which is heartening, we think.
So, if you really want to stay sharp and remember all of those new names next time you go to an event, there’s a compelling case for learning, well after graduation.
Learning something new can mean anything from a run-of-the-mill hobby — think ceramics or cooking classes or learning a martial art. Or, leveling up some skills that can help you in the workplace.
According to Dr. Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas, learning a new skill, as a novice, is mentally challenging. Dr. Park conducted a study, assigning 200 older people to learn either quilting or digital photography. The results revealed that even something like quilting could be complicated to someone without any experience.
Our advice? Check out your local college to see if there’s anything you’re interested in. If you don’t have a ton of time on your hands, then consider downloading the Lynda app — which will teach you new skills from video editing to coding from your phone or laptop.
2. Get organized
A little physical clarity can do wonders for the old brain. According to Psychology Today, thinking can become incoherent if ideas and information are located across multiple spaces. So, when your desk is a mess, and you can’t find your keys or important documents, your ability to think clearly will suffer.
Take some time to develop a system — both online and off. For example, you may want to add a project management tool to your digital lineup — Trello, Asana, and Basecamp are good options for those with sprawling to-do lists.
Spend a day getting your inbox in order and choose one calendar app where you’ll store all of your upcoming tasks and engagements.
On the physical side — clean out your desk. Keep a few favorite pens, a place to take notes, and ditch anything you don’t need. You may also choose to keep your work materials in a backpack or bag that you use every day and store keys and wallets in a designated area.
While this might sound basic, the point is to know where everything is. This way, you don’t spend extra time trying to find what you need to get through the day–whether it’s a physical thing or a digital file.
3. Don’t try to cram new information
Whether you’re currently in school or staring down a milestone reunion, you probably assume you already know how to study.
But, your approach to learning new information might not be so good for memory retention. Research has found that cramming is one of the worst ways to boost memory retention. Instead, space out your reading or study sessions so you have some time to process that new information.
Researchers aren’t entirely sure why spacing your study sessions is vital to your success, but one possible reason is, the new study session jogs your memory from that initial session, you’re forgetting some information, and retrieving it when you revisit the task. And that process may well help you cement that knowledge in place.
4. Are you getting enough sleep?
Sleep is so important. Obvious, sure. But, scrambling to get things done or trying to get more out of a measly 24 hours, can eat away at our requisite eight hours.
Sleep triggers a change within the brain, which solidifies memories by strengthening the connections between cells. Brain cells transfer information from one part of the brain to another, where they’ll settle for the long term.
Additionally, sleep is also thought to help us synthesize new ideas — while you’re sleeping, the brain pulls pieces of information together from various experiences. Meaning, there’s a reason that “sleeping on it” is a good idea — it’s those aha moments that happen as you sleep that can help you solve difficult problems or understand a new concept.
Some people like using sleep trackers, though the only real benefit of using these tools is creating a routine.
It’s hard to determine the time between when your head hits the pillow and when you enter REM. Or, how many sleep cycles you complete each night.
It’s better to stick to a regular schedule — because your body likes predictability. Make time to power down each night, and try waking up at the same time every day, weekend or not.
5. Reduce your stress
Not to add any more stress to your plate, but all that fretting is bad for your noggin. According to Harvard Medical School, stress is linked to cognitive problems, as well as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Researchers found that stress affects thinking and memory because worrying engages one part of your brain. Which, of course, takes energy away from other areas of your brain.
The brain kicks into survival mode and puts memory on the back burner which is a potential explanation for why you suddenly start making mistakes or forgetting things when you’re totally stressed.
Getting your stress under control means relating back to a couple of the tips listed above. Sleeping, for example, can reduce stress. When you’re running low on sleep, the parts of the brain built for high-level handling tasks are running on empty — so your coping mechanisms aren’t there.
And getting organized allows you to manage your workload in a way that makes things feel less overwhelming.
In the end, our memories do have something to do with our genetics. But, that’s not to say genes paint the entire picture of our mental fate. By taking care of yourself — reducing stress, getting a good night’s sleep, and enriching your brain with new information, you’re creating an optimal environment for your mind to absorb and store new memories and connect them to old ones.