Many people notice a difference in memory starting in their 50s. That’s when age-related chemical and structural changes can begin in brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes. These changes may slow processing speed, making it hard to recall familiar names or words.
The following strategies may help improve your memory.
1. Repeat what you hear out loud, such as someone’s name, or an address, or a new idea. Repetition increases the likelihood you’ll record the information and be able to retrieve it later. “With each repetition, your brain has another opportunity to encode the information,” explains Dr. Joel Salinas. “The connections between brain cells are reinforced, much like blazing a trail in the woods. The more you walk the same trail, the easier it is to walk it the next time.”
2. Make a note of people you need to call, errands to run, and appointments. “We are much better at recognition than recall,” Dr. Salinas explains. “With recognition, such as reading a list, you have additional hooks or hints that help you find the information you’re looking for.”
3. Make associations between old and new information. Connect a person’s first name to something familiar. For example, if the person’s name is Sandy, imagine that person on a beach. Or create a story around a shopping list. “Our brain is good at sequences, and putting things into a story helps. The more ridiculous, the more memorable it is. For example, if your list is milk, eggs, and bread, the story could be that you are having milk with Elvis over an egg sandwich,” Dr. Salinas suggests.
4. Divide information into chunks, such as taking a long number and remembering it more like a phone number. “It’s hard to store a long number,” says Dr. Salinas, “but easier to store little bits through working memory.” If you’re trying to memorize a speech for a wedding toast, focus on getting only one sentence or idea down at a time, not the whole speech in one take.
When tricks don’t help
Forgetting something minor from time to time is probably normal. It’s not normal when memory changes interfere with day-to-day functioning. Dr. Salinas recommends that you talk to your doctor if you’re making more mistakes than usual at work; having difficulty paying the bills; or having trouble completing tasks, cooking, emailing, or doing chores. But don’t panic. “More often than not, there’s a temporary or reversible cause behind your memory slips. Once that’s taken care of, you can get back to your more usual remembering self,” says Dr. Salinas.