Maximize Your Memory

The natural aging process can cause forgetfulness. But there are ways to maximize your memory -- whatever age you are.

With age comes wisdom, and often times so does memory decline. Many people think of memory lapses as a normal part of aging, and others fear the worst: Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. While approximately 1 in 10 people age 65 and older have Alzheimer's and related dementias, the loss of mental acuity can occur in the natural aging process. The good news is that there are ways for people to maximize their memory, no matter how old they are.

Laura Printy, professional education manager for the Alzheimer's Association San Diego/Imperial Chapter, explains that it is important to understand why people forget. "Research shows that distraction, fatigue, emotions, and decline in hearing or vision are common reasons people have difficulty remembering things. Situational factors, such as temperature, noise, and posture, can affect memory also."

TIP: Check your hearing and vision and review your medications regularly.

Older persons face these challenges and more. As people age, it's normal to experience slowed information processing and difficulty finding words. Additionally, many people face "memory failures," or unexpected and repeated lapses in memory. Memory failures can include forgetting someone's name, an appointment, why a person entered a room, how to do something, directions, or general train of thought.

TIP: Make associations and chunk together related information.

Aging process or dementia?

So how do people know if their memory failures are a sign of dementia or just a part of normal aging?

"If someone detects personality or mood changes; decline in judgment or reasoning; and difficulty performing familiar tasks, such as bathing or communicating; then he or she may be in the early stages of dementia, which is not a normal part of aging," says Printy. "It is best to see a doctor as soon as these signs appear so that current treatment options can be used early and most effectively."

In San Diego and Imperial counties alone, there are 90,000 people who have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. Nationwide, there are 4.5 million people with Alzheimer's, and studies predict that number will increase to 16 million by 2050. There is no cure, but there are four drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration for treating the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. These are Aricept (donepezil), Reminyl (galantamine), Exelon (rivastigmine), and Namenda (memantine).

"For anyone facing memory problems, whether due to normal aging or dementia, there are techniques to maximize memory," says Printy. "For starters, it's crucial to have a positive attitude. Older adults are more likely to believe they can't improve their memory, and they blame themselves for forgetting things. Identify successes and don't set expectations too high. It's okay to not remember everything."

TIP: Focus on what is critical to remember and don't expect to remember everything.

Memory techniques

Strategies for remembering include paying close attention, repeating information, making associations, and grouping related information. For example, a phone number can be remembered by singing it to a tune and repeating it a few times.

TIP: If possible, try to write things down, repeat information back to yourself, or use a voice recorder to avoid solely relying on memory.

A useful technique for triggering memory is the placement of objects. This can include putting an umbrella on a doorknob, or keeping keys and a wallet in the same place every day. Using memory aids such as these will help alleviate frustration.

TIP: Keep frequently used objects in the same place.

Brain power

At the very root of memory function is brain health. The Alzheimer's Association promotes a campaign called Maintain Your Brain, based on current medical research. A growing body of scientific evidence reveals that what's good for the heart is good for the brain. Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables and foods with antioxidants also benefit the brain.

Activities that stimulate the mind, such as socializing, gardening, reading, doing crossword puzzles and playing games, can increase brain vitality. Keeping mentally active through activities may build reserves of brain cells and even generate new cells.

TIP: Regularly exercising at any intensity, and eating a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet can help improve brain health.

Get more information

People who would like to learn more about memory are invited to attend "Maximizing Your Memory," a free educational course offered by the Alzheimer's Association San Diego/Imperial Chapter. To register for an upcoming class in your area, please call the Chapter at 858-492-4400 or check the educational calendar on the web site

For those concerned that their memory symptoms may be signs of dementia, please call the Chapter's 24-hour Helpline at 800-272-3900. Trained professionals can help callers assess memory challenges and locate resources available. More information on Alzheimer's disease, the Maintain Your Brain campaign and other Chapter services can also be found on the web site,

Six Tips to Maintain Your Brain

  1. Take brain health to heart. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke can increase your risk of Alzheimer's disease.
  2. Your numbers count. Keep your body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels within recommended ratings.
  3. Feed your brain. Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet that includes dark-skinned vegetables and fruits; foods rich in antioxidants; vitamins E, C and B-12; folate; and omega-3 fatty acids.
  4. Work your body. Physical exercise keeps the blood flowing and encourages new brain cells. It doesn't have to be strenuous activity. Do what you can -- walking 30 minutes a day -- to keep both the body and mind active.
  5. Jog your mind. Keeping your brain active and engaged increases its vitality and builds reserves of brain cells and connections. Read, write, play games, and do crossword puzzles.
  6. Connect with others. Leisure activities that combine physical, mental, and social elements are most likely to prevent dementia. Socialize, volunteer, and join!