Two Tricks to Keep Your Memory Sharp

Losing our memories is one of the scariest prospects about getting older.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 1 in 9 Americans aged 65 and older has Alzheimer's dementia. That's a terrifying statistic...

But it's normal for everyone to experience some degree of forgetfulness as a natural part of the aging process.

The key is knowing what's normal, what's abnormal, and knowing what to do to keep your memory sharp – thereby minimizing the impact of aging on your brain.

Normal forgetfulness looks like:

  • Making a bad decision occasionally
  • Missing a monthly payment
  • Momentarily forgetting the date
  • Sometimes forgetting the correct words to use when speaking
  • Losing things from time to time

Severe forgetfulness looks like:

  • Regularly making poor judgements and decisions
  • Problems taking care of monthly bills
  • Losing track of the date or time of year
  • Trouble having a conversation
  • Misplacing things often and being unable to find them

Fortunately, we can take steps to keep our memories sharp as we age. And one of the best ways to do that is by learning new things...

A 2013 study from the University of Texas found that older adults engaging in cognitively demanding activities – as opposed to social activities – for 16 hours a week over a three-month period experienced improvements in their memory.

And when it comes to learning and mastering a new skill, a new study out of Iowa State University found that combining two specific strategies is essential for success. The research team pored over more than 100 years of research on the concept of learning and found that these two strategies enhance learning in various settings across the lifespan: "spacing" and "retrieval practice."

Here's a little more about what they are and how to do them. I'll use the running example of studying for a test since that's something we can all relate to, but these concepts can be applied to learning anything new – like building a coffee table or playing pickleball.

Brain-Sharpening Trick No. 1: Spacing

Spacing is a strategy that involves learning in multiple, small sessions over time. This allows you to break up the material into smaller, more digestible chunks of information without the pressure of time looming over you. It allows you time to review the material you've already learned.

Think of spacing as the opposite of cramming... So, for example, using the spacing technique means spending two hours studying every other day for two weeks as opposed to spending 12 hours studying in one day.

Spacing is best utilized when it's planned out ahead of time. So use a calendar to create a schedule and plan to learn at similar times each day. This will help keep your spacing consistent.

Brain-Sharpening Trick No. 2: Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice involves actively remembering the new information you've learned without having it up in front of you. This helps you move information from short-term to long-term memory storage. Retrieval practice utilizes complex thinking and application skills, requires you to organize your new knowledge, and allows you to transform the information into new concepts. All of these activities increase your understanding of the material.

This could look like making practice questions to test yourself on your new knowledge, creating colorful flash cards, or using the new information to create a catchy song. And if you're learning your new skill with someone else, make a retrieval-practice partner out of them and create time to get together and test each other.

So keep your memory sharp and do what I do... I've been learning to speak Spanish and Chinese with the Duolingo app on my phone. The app tells me I've learned about 400 words in Spanish and 150 in Chinese.

I also spend a few hours each week watching webinars on taxation to keep my mind sharp and up to date. And, of course, there's the wealth of knowledge and experience that my winemaking continues to offer me.

Take an art class, learn how to play an instrument, start a new hobby. Keep your memory alive with new things that satisfy your enjoyment for the richness that life has to offer while also providing a healthy challenge to give that beautiful brain "muscle" of yours a great workout.

How do you keep your mind sharp? Share your tips with us... [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 1, 2022