I wanted to originally research and write an article on cognition as well as memory, but on closer inspection found that memory is such a huge topic in its own right, and this is one area I know that many of us would like to improve.

Memory is your ability to store, retain, and subsequently recall information. This magical process happens at places in the brain known as synapses (where nerve cells “communicate” with each other through the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters).

Memory problems, like mood disorders can vary in intensity. Most people maintain a reasonable level of long term memory, but many people complain of a failing short term memory and some over the years have asked me if there is anything they can do or take to improve a flagging memory. This is particularly so with those aged 65 and up, but short term memory problems can affect you a lot younger than that. Take a look at the three main stages below.

Those who are under stress, particularly acute stress, will have a problem with encoding the information as well as recalling it. The elderly often have problems with the retrieval process, but can still encode the information alright. Have you ever thought about a person, but got frustrated when you couldn’t remember their name? Then you have retrieval issues.

Three main stages in the formation and retrieval of memory:

  • Encoding (processing and combining of received information)
  • Storage (creation of a permanent record of the encoded information)
  • Recall (calling back the stored information in response to some cue for use in a process or activity)

Now let’s take a closer look at what potentially causes memory loss to occur, how we can improve our short term memory and the best foods and supplements to take as well.

Some of the leading causes of memory loss :

  • Aging process : Memory impairment is the primary symptom of age-associated memory impairment.
  • Metabolism : Excessive generation of free radicals in the brain may cause memory impairment. This is why it is good to have a diet rich in the antioxidant foods even more so as you age. Memory impairment may occur as a symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) apparently 57% of hypoglycemia patients experience memory impairment). Insulin resistance may cause memory impairment. Memory impairment may occur as a result of hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid).
  • Nervous System – Stress: This is perhaps the No.1 cause of memory loss. Excessive stress can increase the rate of memory loss in elderly persons. Memory impairment may occur as a result of adrenal Insufficiency, often accompanied with fatigue. This often occurs after a period of prolonged stress. I’ll bet a few school teachers out there can agree here! Please refer to my previous Healthy Options article on Adrenal Fatigue from early 2006, there you will find many tips on improving adrenal exhaustion. Memory impairment is one of the characteristic symptoms of dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease).
  • Hormone System – Memory loss may occur as a symptom of male menopause. Get your hormone levels checked here; testosterone replacement for men is becoming increasingly more mainstream therapy, both overseas and in NZ as well. Memory impairment may occur as a result of the PMS- (Pre Menstrual Syndrome). Visit your naturopath or herbalist here. I find that it takes about two to three months of treatment to get the cycle nicely back on track, generally speaking.

Memory and stress, depression and worry

This will sound like a familiar scenario to many: you have arrived somewhere and placed either you Eftpos card, sunglasses, keys, cell phone or handbag somewhere. When its time to leave, you can’t remember where you placed the item? Or, somebody gives you a phone number verbally, and sixty seconds later you can’t remember that number? A simple trick is to “imprint” the information. A lot of times, what we call “forgetfulness” is actually just the result of being distracted! So if you were surfing the internet while your partner was rattling off a grocery list, you’re not going to remember the list because your brain was focusing on the Internet.

Try not to multitask when someone is talking to you – stop whatever you’re doing and focus on their words. Also, before entering a situation where you have to absorb information – like a meeting at work – jot down any other thoughts you’re having, to get them out of the way. That’ll “clear your mind” so you can focus on what you’re about to hear.

People who are often stressed out, anxious or depressed are far more likely to develop memory problems than those with sunnier and easy going dispositions. Studies show that stress hormones can literally shrink the memory centers in your brain. But doing something relaxing can improve your mental health.

One study found that children who participated in a yoga (relaxation) camp showed a huge 43 percent increase in memory tests compared to kids who didn’t attend the camp. So, I propose to spend at least 15 minutes each day doing something that relaxes you – whether it’s yoga, walking, deep breathing, or reading a good book – do something just for you. You’ll be really glad you did when you’re 99 years old and can still remember where you put your sunglasses, credit card, handbag and especially your car keys!

Data from two large USA studies involving 1,256 older people who started the studies with no memory problems. After up to 12 years of follow up, 482 people in the study developed mild memory impairment. Participants were rated on how prone they are to worry and depression, and interestingly it was found that those who had the most depression and worry suffered most with an impaired short term memory.

If you understand the more technical aspects of your computer, your RAM memory is what makes up your computer’s short term memory, and your hard drive is the long term memory storage. When your computer “crashes”, this generally means that the RAM memory becomes scrambled up, and this is often caused by too much information being processed at any one time. It is generally solved with a “reboot.” If you become aware of how your memory really works, follow some of the techniques outlined in this article and eat more “memory foods”, you literally can increase how much “RAM memory” your brain is working with.

I can remember reading a book on memory some time ago, in which the author said that we tend to remember things the most which have left the greatest impressions on us. If an incident occurred in your younger years which affected you profoundly, it is likely that this will be recorded forever in your miniscule “hard drive” compartment called the hippocampus in the centre of your brain.

Any memories with lots of strong emotions will bring back memories – songs and even smells are strongly associated with memory as well. Do you remember that song on the radio when you were first going out with your partner? It is sure to bring back many memories! Perhaps a particular scent or smell reminds you of somebody or some incident quite strongly?

Memory Tips & Techniques

Keep on learning new things

Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Healthy Aging says that the more you learn, the more new connections you create in your brain. And having lots of connections creates a rich, dense neural network that’ll be slower to produce symptoms of dementia. So make the effort to learn something new – a good choice is a foreign language or learn to play a musical instrument. Both require listening closely as well as involving processing and retrieving new information fast. And you don’t have to speak fluent Japanese or play a Mozart Sonata to perfection to reap the benefits either, apparently by just engaging in the learning process will keep your brain in good shape!

My grandfather was an avid chess player and enjoyed cryptic crosswords well into his eighties. Do you have an interest which stimulates your mind? You will appreciate a sound mind when you are older, believe me. ”

Be more visual

Do you want to remember somebody’s name? It is always nice to remember somebody’s name. Say their name back to them when you talk to them, this will ensure that you encode the sound of their name into your brain, a bit like when you save a document to your hard drive of your PC – you click save. Many of us are stressed to some degree in our dealings with others, particularly when we first meet somebody for the first time. Make sure you pay attention and look at the person’s face, or perhaps recognise some characteristic feature about them. Do they wear glasses, are their eyes a certain colour, is their certain smell or odour, does the person speak with an accent, etc. All these points help your brain to encode, but the biggest hint is to simply pay attention.

I remember a massage teacher called Alan I had many years ago, who remembered over 50 student’s names just after the first class we had with him. He got each person in turn to introduce themselves and say a few words, then he said our names back to us after each one had spoken. Alan was concentrating, and encoding each name and face to his memory. I saw Alan several years after graduation and he still knew my name, along with the names of countless other students. Amazing? You would be amazed at how much you can really improve your memory if you try.

Memory and Sleep

Interesting studies conducted in America in 2005 discovered that an animal’s long term memory became very compromised if they tried to encode information very late at night and early in the morning. Our circadian clock (our night and day rhythm, controlled primarily by the hormone melatonin) shuts down the molecular circuit in our brain at a particular time of night, prohibiting both the encoding process and the occurrence of long-term memory. For many people, especially those under any form of stress, good quality sleep can have a profound effect on memory and brain power in general. What a simple, cheap and practical solution to improving your memory, just by getting more quality sleep!

As studies reveal, sleep plays an important role in your long-term memory. Sleep is without doubt one of the absolute essential requirements if you are ever to achieve optimal mental, emotional and physical wellness, and I always make it an absolute priority on any patient’s health & wellness list. You will find that those who live the longest generally have a long history of excellent sleep patterns. And isn’t it great to wake up feeling fresh and invigorated, ready to face the new day! You don’t have a TV in your bedroom do you? If you have a sleeping problem, then the first thing you do is to remove the TV. How can you ever wish to relax in such an environment?

This is very important: sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. Light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your brain’s production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. A good tip is to get a dim nightlight which you plug into the power point in your bathroom. This will give you enough light at night should you need to visit the bathroom. Keep the light off (or have it very dim) when you go to the bathroom at night. Research has shown that as soon as you turn on a bright 100 watt light your brain will promptly cease production of the important sleep aid melatonin. Exposure to strong light during the middle of the night can severely affect your sleep cycle, and can rob you of your ability to develop a good memory.

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Eric Bakker is the clinical director of The Naturopaths and holds a Bachelor Degree of Science majoring in Complementary Health Care, as well as separate diploma qualifications in Naturopathy, Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy. Eric has 20 years clinical experience in natural medicine, and received post-graduate natural medicine training in Australia, India, America as well as New Zealand. Eric has four children and lives in the sunny Hawkes Bay

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