When retired professor Darlene Howard taught in the psychology department of Georgetown University, she often had to remember the names of as many as 50 students a semester. So Howard used a memory trick: She created an association with a student’s name or face. A student with the last name of Brady might make her think of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The next time she saw the student, she would tap that image to remember his name.
If you struggle to recall a word that’s on the tip of your tongue, or have trouble putting names to faces, you may think memory decline is a normal part of aging you have to accept. But you can strengthen certain memory skills, and improve your overall brain health and cognitive function. “There are a lot of ways you can facilitate the health of your brain,” says Howard, now age 70. “What we need to do is not get worried so much about the fact we’re not remembering something, and instead think of ways we can remember it.”
Start with techniques to help you improve specific skills. When meeting someone for the first time, repeat the name when introduced, to make sure you’ve got it, Howard says. Then create an association to help you remember–and practice it. “Even something ridiculous is good, and it will work,” Howard says. Take notes on your phone after the introduction to refer to later.
If you can’t recall a word, that’s generally because it’s a word you don’t use that often, says Lise Abrams, a University of Florida psychology professor who has studied word-finding problems for 20 years. But consciously using other words that start with the same syllable as the word you forgot may be helpful in the future. For example, if you intended to use the word denote but couldn’t remember it, try frequently using words such as decide or debate, and it may help you recall the missing word the next time around.
Boost Brain Health
Brain training games are widely advertised, but the benefits are limited. Memory games may improve your memory slightly, and language games may boost your language ability a bit, but there’s no proof yet of any major changes beyond that, says D.P. Devanand, director of geriatric psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “There simply isn’t enough evidence to recommend this strategy as a means to reverse memory impairment and decline,” he says.
But research does prove that taking care of your overall brain health helps improve your brain function and memory. A healthy brain actually begins with your heart, Devanand says. Older people sometimes suffer small strokes without realizing it, so stopping smoking, lowering your cholesterol and getting hypertension treated can reduce that risk. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” he says.
Add in exercise, but an occasional stroll isn’t enough. You need to combine aerobic and resistance exercises, such as using weights, Devanand says. Or walk for 45 minutes at least three days a week, and push yourself to go faster. If that’s too much, “any exercise or activity is better than none,” Howard says.
Being social helps, because social interaction stimulates the brain. Ask a friend to join you on a walk or at the gym. Or consider volunteering for a cause you care about. A recent Johns Hopkins University study showed that seniors who tutored in Baltimore schools had improved brain performance.
Keep your brain active by taking classes to learn new skills or teach yourself to use new technology. Or consider meditating, which can help you focus, a skill that declines with age. And don’t panic: You may forget words more often as you age, but it’s not a sign your memory is gone. Seek a medical evaluation, including a cognitive performance test, to rule out any major issues. Then practice memory techniques and healthy habits. That name is likely to come back to you eventually.
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