How to improve your memory (and stop losing your keys)

Everyday habits and memory tricks to make life less forgettable.

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It happens to everybody: You set your keys down and forget where you’ve put them. Or you meet someone for the first time, and even though you were introduced, you can’t remember their name to save your life. Annoying? Absolutely. Signs of irreversible memory issues? Not necessarily.

These experiences are more commonly related to attention issues rather than true memory problems. They can also be indicative of other (seemingly unrelated) issues that need addressing, like too much stress or too little sleep, explains Karen D. Sullivan, PhD, ABPP, founder of Pinehurst Neuropsychology in North Carolina and creator of the I Care for Your Brain program. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on strengthening and supporting your memory “muscle,” especially since changes in memory are a natural part of aging.

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How Memory Changes as You Age

While memory issues typically start becoming more common in your 60s or 70s, changes can start as early as your 30s and 40s, says Elizabeth Chrastil, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California Irvine. No need to panic, though, as it’s unlikely these changes will noticeably impair you or even affect your daily functioning.

“Normal aging in the early stages is quite small and subtle,” she says, adding that if memory issues interfere with your daily life and ability to function, especially before 60, that’s not normal aging.

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The majority of differences have to do with what Chrastil calls maximum performance. For instance, while a younger adult might be able to remember perhaps 20 new pairs of names and faces, a midlife individual might remember 15, and an older person 11. “With healthy aging, you remember less and are slower—but not totally impaired,” she says.

What’s more, Sullivan says, most memory issues associated with normal aging are almost always in what’s called short-term memory. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is largely immune to normal, age-related changes, as well as many subtypes of dementia, until the most advanced stages.

“This may be because there are years and years of remembering those memories, so they get reinforced,” she says. It also has to do with where in the brain these typical age-related changes happen. “The area where most [long-term] memories are stored, in the gray matter of the cortex, remains quite healthy in people who are experiencing normal cognitive aging.”

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Keep Your Brain Strong and Sharp

Of course, just as you exercise to keep your heart, muscles, and bones strong, you should also be engaging your brain regularly to support mental fitness. “There’s clear evidence that cognitive engagement throughout life supports a better memory into older adulthood,” Sullivan says.

Activities like reading, writing, completing puzzles, and playing board games are associated with higher cognitive performance and may even help protect against age-related diseases like dementia. But remember that having new experiences and learning new skills are the key. “It’s not just doing the crossword puzzle or Sudoku every day, since once you’ve figured out some strategies for them, they become more of a habit,” Chrastil says.

Instead, learn a new language or hobby, meet new people, and get out of your comfort zone. Lifelong learning and social interaction are essential. One suggestion? “When you’re interacting with people, talk about your childhood experiences to help keep them fresher,” she adds.

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8 Strategies and Habits to Improve Your Memory

While the above activities and habits for brain health will largely help support and improve long-term memory, there are other things you can do to improve short-term memory. Here are eight healthy strategies to give your memory a boost.

Put things in the same place.

If you’re always losing your keys or wallet, designate a spot for them and always put them there to help take the load off your brain. “Anything that you can turn into a habit where you don’t have to think about it will help,” Chrastil says.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

If you’re having trouble remembering the name of a person you just met, say their name back to them and repeat it in conversation multiple times. “Using information helps you process it more deeply, helping you remember things,” Chrastil says.

Say your actions out loud.

When you’re doing something you need to remember—like where you put your keys—talk to yourself as you do it, Sullivan says. For instance, you might say “I’m putting my keys on the red table.” Doing that will put you in the moment and make a clear memory of that event so you’ll better remember what you need.

Use a reminder app.

If you have information to remember or need to have set reminders, apps can be an effective way to support memory, Sullivan says. For instance, iPhone users can take advantage of a built-in Reminders app, and Evernote lets you record notes and to-dos and set reminders that appear right when you need them.

Drink enough water.

Surprisingly, being even slightly dehydrated can impact your brain, affecting things like focus and short-term memory. “Drinking some water can help you get the focus you need and improve that recall,” says Jessica Fredericksen, MSW, CDP, director of brain health at Goodwin Living in Virginia.

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Log adequate sleep.

Sleep is as important to your brain as your body. While you rest, parts of your noggin are actually wide awake and working hard to process and store new information. “You consolidate memories when you sleep, so beyond simply resting, sleep is an active part of memory,” Chrastil says. If you frequently don’t sleep well or sleep enough, your brain misses out on prime (and essential) memory-making time. Plus, poor sleep can lead to memory and attention issues. Some people need a little less or a little more, but aim for about seven hours of sleep every single night.

Take a deep, intentional breaths.

You’ve been told to “just breathe” a million times to relieve stress, but there’s a good reason to do it for your memory’s sake. “Stress makes your brain go into fight-flight-freeze mode, and in that mode, you can’t recall information,” Fredericksen says. Yet by taking a deep breath and remaining calm about what you’ve forgotten, you’re more likely to remember it. Some of the easiest and most effective breathing exercises to calm the nervous system and lower stress include methods like box breathing and 4-7-8 breathing.

Commit to regular aerobic exercise.

Physical activity remains a top memory-building strategy for numerous reasons. "Exercise increases the fuel that brain cells need to live and thrive (oxygen and glucose) and reduces inflammation and insulin resistance,” Sullivan says, all of which are fundamental for healthy functioning (including remembering things). “Exercise also stimulates the release of growth factors in the brain that improve the health of brain cells and blood vessels in the brain.” In addition, moderate-intensity exercise has been linked to increasing the size of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and keeps the blood vessels in the brain healthy.

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