Making the most of your aging memory

7 ways to improve the efficiency of a weakening brain

Illustration by Daniel Fishel

You can recall every obscure song lyric, but you can’t find your car keys or remember why you went upstairs. Welcome to the aging brain.

“There’s a decreased efficiency in how our brains work, in the information retrieval process, as we age,” says James Lah, MD, PhD, director of Emory University’s Cognitive Neurology Program. That’s why names and facts don’t come to mind like they used to. “It’s like a filing system. The files are intact and that’s why you can eventually remember those things, but when you go to retrieve that information, it may take longer.”

Lah says there’s not much evidence that apps and computer games designed to improve memory actually work. What they do is increase your proficiency at a particular skill—like solving math problems quickly. But there are some steps that can help sharpen your memory skills:

Reminders: Attention is the key to memory, says Georgia Tech’s Randall Engle, PhD, director of the GSU/GT Center for Advanced Brain Imaging. “Learn strategies of how to attend to information,” he suggests. Use mnemonics (remember HOMES for the Great Lakes?) and other such tactics. For example, Engle repeats names out loud when he meets people and associates something unique with each person’s name and face.

Exercise: Studies show regular aerobic movement may protect the brain from both normal aging and degenerative disease. Socialization Join a club, play bridge, or just hang out with friends. “There’s nothing like interacting with other people to keep you on your mental toes,” says Lah. Conversation forces you to react spontaneously to what other people say.

Diet: The same diet that’s good for your heart is good for your head. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and avoiding saturated fats can help ward off long-term memory loss.

Sleep: Your brain needs rest to function. Just try to remember talking points for a presentation after a sleepless night.

Hobbies: Activities such as playing musical instruments and doing crossword puzzles have been scientifically linked to reducing the long-term risk of dementia, but no connection has been proven between them and normal aging.

Declutter: The better organized you are and the less surrounded by clutter, the less likely you are to be distracted.

GA Smart
According to America’s Brain Health Index, Georgia is the tenth-best state for cranial fitness. Our strengths: eating lots of “good” fats (omega-3s), low rate of Alzheimer’s disease, and spiritual activities. We are weak on breastfeeding, diabetes, and game-playing. Georgia is the only Southern state near the top. Alabama and Mississippi pull up the rear; Maryland ranks highest.

Quiz: How good it your memory? 
The Saint Louis University Mental Status (SLUMS) exam, developed in partnership with the Veterans Administration, is often used to help screen for dementia. Here are some sample questions:

‣ Remember these five objects:
Apple     Pen     Tie     House     Car

‣ You have $100 and you go to the store and buy a dozen apples for $3 and a tricycle for $20.
– How much did you spend?
– How much do you have left?

‣ Name as many animals as you can in one minute.

‣ What were the five objects you were asked to remember?

‣ Say these numbers backward. For example, 24 is 42.
87     649     8537

‣ This is a clock face. Please put in the hour markers and the time at ten minutes to eleven o’clock

Had this been a complete test, your score could’ve indicated a need for further testing—and we would’ve been actual neurologists.


Spot illustrations by Natalie K. Nelson

This article originally appeared in our 2014 Health issue under the headline “Random Access.”