“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”
With advancing age, many adults worry not only about their health, but also about their memory. First, let us examine why we value our memory, and then look at some of the latest research in how to improve memory.
With the externalization of memory by cell phones, computers, digital photographs, books, and pencil and paper, one can wonder why we need our brains to remember anything at all. However, thousands of years ago the major way we passed along information was orally, which required focused attention and memory. Dating back 2500 years, the Iliad and the sequel, the Odyssey, were transmitted orally by the rhythm of the words. It is said that the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, was memorized by Moses, then taught to the leaders of the Hebrew people, and then passed on to the 1 million or so who left Egypt around 1500 BCE. The Torah chant or trope aided memorization, and may have even contributed to more precise interpretation. For 1000 years, not one word of Torah was recorded in the written word. The value of “knowing” the Torah in the mind was that it could be scanned quickly for reference and applied meaningfully to any life situation. Today, with the exception of some Torah and Talmudic scholars, few possess this skill. Although computers are useful memory tools, digitalized knowledge cannot be applied in situations requiring emotional awareness and response. For example, a musician who performs a piece from memory can evoke musical pathos or elation that extends beyond the printed notes.
There are scores of self-help books on improving memory. One that I recently enjoyed reading is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by an investigative journalist, Joshua Foer. He states this about the process of improving his memory, “My experience has validated the old saw that practice makes perfect. But only if it’s the right kind of concentrated, self-conscious, deliberate practice.” The main technique he utilized was the “PAO system.” A specific person, action, or object is associated with a specific card in a deck, or a segment of poetry, or a number to be recalled. I won’t reveal the ending of the book, but the memory feat Joshua Foer was able to accomplish was quite extraordinary. Moreover, the tools he used can be learned by anyone.
There have been many medical studies to investigate memory loss and interventions to improve it. Despite early hopes that computerized brain games or taking gingko biloba could make a significant difference, follow up studies have not confirmed their long-term benefit. One novel medical study from UCLA (in the journal Aging, September 2014) showed actual Reversal of Cognitive Decline. In this study, 9 of 10 patients with early Alzheimer’s, or mild and subjective cognitive impairment improved within 3-6 months using a comprehensive program involving up to 36 interventions. The one patient who did not improve had advanced dementia. Patients who had quit their jobs because of poor memory were able to return to work. Notably absent from the regimen were prescription medicines. Although the program was personalized, here are some of the key components:
- Exercise 30-60 minutes, 4-6 times per week. (Exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons of the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain, and preserves existing neurons.)
- Eat a healthy diet. Eliminate simple carbohydrates, increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, and non-farmed fish.
- Reduce stress; meditate, practice yoga, or listen to music.
- Aim for 8 hours of sleep per night.
- Fast 12 hours per night including 3 hours prior to bedtime to reduce sugar and insulin levels. (The higher one’s glucose, the greater the risk for memory loss.)
- Supplements such as B12, Vitamin D, fish oil, and curcumin were individualized in this study.
Although none of the participants followed the protocol entirely, the results were still impressive. Dr. Dale Bredesen, the neurologist and author of the study, advises a full clinical trial to substantiate the findings.
I instruct my patients who have concerns about their memory to incorporate heart-healthy habits: “What is good for the heart is good for the brain.” Other measures that aid our memory that I have witnessed watching my 3-year-old granddaughters and 92- year-old mother include:
- Learn by song or rhyme. Think of the ABC song. Singing or chanting triggers additional nerve pathways to aid memorization and recall. Whenever I attend Shabbat services with my mother, chanting of a prayer aids her ability to remember it.
- When I observe my granddaughters learning a new word, they repeat the word out loud. When you meet a new person, try to state the name of the person 2-3 times to reinforce it in your memory bank.
- New experiences add links to memory circuitry. Socialize with others, take your children or grandchildren to the zoo, or travel to maximize the opportunity for memorable moments. Stay active.
In summary, keep yourself focused, exercise your mind, and practice a healthy lifestyle to stay sharp. Your personal memories are valuable because they define you. Protect them.
Jerry Saliman, MD is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after working there more than 30 years. While at Kaiser SSF, Dr. Saliman was also Chief of Patient Education. He received the 2012 “Lifetime Achievement Award” given by the Kaiser SSF Medical Staff.
Editing acknowledgement: Ellen Saliman
Neither the PJCC or our guest columnists provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please make your health care decisions in partnership with your health care provider