By Christine Otsuka
My memory isn’t what it used to be.
In university, I was the queen of cramming. It was common to have back-to-back exams. Outside of school, I worked at a women’s fitness centre with hundreds of members and part of my job was to know each member’s name and their story. I was also a waitress —the kind who never used a notepad, but always got your order right.
Three years ago, I had to look up my boyfriend’s birthday on Facebook. “Is it the 5th? Or the 3rd? No, it’s got to be the 8th?” Ugh.
Not my proudest moment. And one I’ve experienced more than a handful of times since then. It’s often for simple stuff—like debating the name of a film or TV actor with friends. Rather than racking our brains to find the answer, one of us pulls out a smartphone and looks it up on the Internet.
It worried me enough that one day, I suggested to my friends that I (and we) should all stop Googling the answers when they’re probably locked away in our memory somewhere.
So the next time something like this came up, I consciously resisted the urge to Google. I sat there, hemming and hawing, thinking for what seemed like an eternity, and I came up empty. I thought, “maybe it will come to me in the middle of the night, or when I’m no longer fixated on finding the answer.” Never happened—mainly because I caved no more than 20 minutes later, typed it into the computer and hit the search button. Voila!
THE CONVENIENCE FACTOR
These days, instead of committing things to memory, we bank on the fact that we can look up the information later. Maybe it’s an appointment in our calendar or where a colleague is working. But because we know that the answers to pretty much everything—our professional responsibilities and even important details about our loved ones and friends—can be found elsewhere, we know we don’t NEED to remember it.
It’s a matter of convenience. In the past, it took a lot more effort to find answers and details. Think flipping through files, reports, encyclopedias, or sneakily checking someone’s driver’s license for their date of birth when they’re in the other room.
The convenience factor is there. The information is readily available. So we don’t have to use our memories quite so much.
We’re also much more distracted than we were in years past. We have more appointments and commitments in our digital agendas, more people in our lives, and more of our attention is required throughout the day. So it’s no surprise that we’re all prone to forget at one time or another.
IS IT JUST ME?
You expect these kinds of things to happen when you’re older, much older. For women, a loss of memory is something you associate with menopause or a later stage of life.
But according to Ron White, an author and memory expert, it happens earlier than you think. “Most studies point to our memories beginning to decline in our 30s,” he says. You may notice you can’t recall certain things like people’s names or commitments, and you can’t process information quite as quickly. That’s normal and a product of general deterioration, distractions and stress. But this impaired memory function doesn’t have to be accepted as fact.
“Just like you can improve the health of your body with good nutrition and exercise, you can improve your brain with good nutrition and exercise,” says White.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Beyond the usual list-making, note-taking and reminder-setting, one of the most important things you can do to improve memory is get eight hours of quality sleep per night and if possible, get up early. Studies show that early risers perform much better on memory tests than their late-rising counterparts.
Another easy tip is to stop procrastinating. If we do things when we think of them, we can wipe the task from our memory. But if we procrastinate, there’s more chance that we’ll forget to do it. Keeping the task in the mind also crowds it and increases the likelihood we’ll forget other things as well.
Research shows that socializing and having a support system has a positive impact on brain health. In a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that people with active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline.
When it comes to professional engagements, practice makes perfect. Consider this: You’re at an event, you meet someone for the first time, and as she’s talking, you realize you have no idea what her name is. “Nine times out of 10, when you don’t recall someone’s name 10 minutes after meeting them, it is a problem of focus…you weren’t listening,” says White. To keep this from happening, try to repeat their name back to them following their introduction. If you’re approaching someone for the first time, repeat “what is their name?” in your head and it will help focus your memory to listen for their name.
And finally, the root of all evil…stress. When you’re stressed out, your body produces cortisol, which has been linked to damaging the part of the brain involved in memory, according to White. Anxiety, especially chronic anxiety, will reduce your short-term memory and ability to focus. Manage stress by exercising daily or through meditation or yoga.
We all suffer occasional memory lapses. And while they range from the annoying to the downright embarrassing (but let’s hope not catastrophic), the important thing to remember is memory is something that can be improved upon. It’s like a muscle, and it needs to be flexed. Like they always say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And if you need a reminder, make one now, before you forget.
WHAT IS A MEMORY LAPSE?
A memory lapse is a momentary inability to remember a piece of information, such as how to do something, a word, a phone number or someone’s name. When a memory lapse resolves itself, the recollection returns. These brief hiccups in memory may last only a few seconds or a few minutes, and they can be very frustrating, as people may feel momentarily helpless until their memories kick in.
EATING FOR MEMORY
Look for foods rich in antioxidants, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Brain-friendly foods include:
- Fatty fish, such as salmon
- Dark leafy greens
- Red wine (in moderation)
- Grape juice
- Green tea
GOOD FOR YOUR GROUP
Being social and interacting with those around you has a positive impact on memory, so next time you’re planning a group activity, try this exercise:
- Ask group participants to wear a nametag at the beginning of the activity.
- Have them introduce themselves to each other and focus on a task.
- Once the task is completed, ask the participants to remove their nametags.
- Finally, ask participants to name the other people in their group.