The good news, according to neuroscientists at Boston University, is that some age-related memory decline can be reversed. They’ve shown that working memory – the system that allows us to hold information in our heads for short periods of time - can be rejuvenated. The bad news, however, is that it requires electrical stimulation of the brain - and the effect only lasts for 50 minutes.
Not to worry, though. The Bostonians aren’t the only scientists looking at memory improvement, and some others have devised ingenious and non-invasive memory boosting techniques that just about everyone can try – and possibly benefit from.
1 SLEEP IN A HAMMOCK
A good night’s sleep is an essential ingredient of a good memory, and an excellent way of achieving this, according to researchers at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, is to sleep in a hammock. The rocking motion of the hammock, they say, is just the thing for a restful night.
“Our volunteers – even if they were all good sleepers – fell asleep more rapidly when rocked and had longer periods of deeper sleep,” said Laurence Bayer, one of the study’s authors.
Bayer and his colleagues were also curious about how sleeping in a hammock might affect memory consolidation, the process that converts short-term memories into long-term ones. So they conducted another experiment - and found that those who had slept in a hammock the night before a memory consolidation test performed better than those who had slept in a bed.
2 GET SOME (LIGHT) EXERCISE
Light exercise, such as walking, tai chi or yoga, can increase the connectivity between the parts of the brain responsible for memory formation and storage.
In a joint study by the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba, Japan, the brains of 36 healthy young adults were scanned immediately after they had completed some light exercise.
And according to the brain scans, just 10 minutes of exercise was enough to cause increased connectivity between the hippocampus and the other parts of the brain responsible for memory processing.
“The hippocampus is critical for the formation of new memories; it’s one of the first regions of the brain to deteriorate as we get older - and much more severely in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Michael Yassa, co-leader of the study. “Improving the function of the hippocampus holds much promise for improving memory in everyday settings.”
3 DRAW IT
Drawing, even if you’re no Leonardo da Vinci, is a great way to help you remember new information, especially if you’re an older adult - according to researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
They gave a group of adults - young and old - sets of words to learn and had them try a number of “memory-encoding methods” to help them remember the words. These methods included: writing out the words; drawing the words; and listing the physical attributes of the words.
“We found that drawing enhanced memory in older adults more than any other known study techniques,” said Melissa Meade, one of the study’s authors. “We’re really encouraged by these results and are looking into ways that it can be used to help people with dementia.”
4 READ ALOUD
Another team at the University of Waterloo found that you’re more likely to remember written material if you read it aloud. Seemingly, reading combined with hearing yourself reading can have a strong effect on your memory.
“This study confirms that learning and memory benefit from active involvement,” said Professor Colin M MacLeod, who co-authored the study. “When we add an active measure or a production element to a word, that word becomes more distinct in long-term memory, and hence more memorable.” MacLeod and his team tested a number of methods for learning written material, including reading silently and listening to someone else read, but they found that reading aloud had the biggest effect on memory.
5 HAVE A CURRY
In a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, adults with mild memory problems were given 90 milligrams of a curcumin supplement twice a day for 18 months.
Curcumin, which is a substance found in turmeric, the spice that gives curry its bright colour, is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
By testing each adult’s cognitive abilities before, during and after taking the supplement, the researchers found that the curcumin had had significant a significant effect on their memory.
“Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain,” said Dr Small, “but it may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer’s disease and major depression.” 6 HAVE A REST A number of recent studies have shown that short periods of rest after learning can help us retain the new information. In fact, according to Erin J Wamsley of Furman University, South Carolina, “periods of unoccupied rest” may be an essential part of memory consolidation.
The importance of sleep when learning new material - such as revising for exams - has long been established, but Wamsley believes that short periods of “doing nothing” and “resting with one’s eyes closed” may serve the same function.
Her own research found that a 15-minute period of eyes-closed rest following the learning of new material enhanced later recall of the material. In her research paper, she concludes: “Far from being a waste of time, ‘rest’ during wakefulness may end up being a crucial and widely underappreciated contribution to long-term memory formation in everyday life.”