By Dr Jenny Brockis
Memory difficulties are commonly thought of as a problem relating to older age. However, the somewhat depressing news published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 revealed how cognitive decline starts in our 40s and 50s, indicating it’s never too early to be putting in place ways to help preserve cognitive function.
Several factors contribute to our struggle with memory, but one of the chief culprits is stress, identified by 80 per cent of survey respondents in the US as their most common workplace challenge. With rates of ‘presenteeism’ costing the Australian economy $34 billion a year, identifying ways to reduce the impact of stress and boost memory and cognition is becoming increasingly urgent.
To remember anything requires the three-phase step of paying attention, encoding the material and recalling it at the appropriate time. Poor workplace practices such as multitasking or working too many hours when already tired mean we may never encode all the information we want to retain. We think we have forgotten, but we never remembered in the first place.
Thankfully, there are three simple ways we can boost our memory:
Getting enough sleep
Chronic sleep deprivation increases daytime sleepiness and reduces attention and speed of processing information. Worse, it increases the risk of false-memory formation, where the imagination creates its own version of reality.
Most people need between seven and nine hours of good-quality, uninterrupted sleep to think at their best. Over-busy brains benefit from an evening wind-down that includes switching off all technology at least one hour before bed, maintaining a regular bedtime routine, and keeping the room cool (about 21C), dark and quiet. Adding 20 minutes of sleep time through going to bed earlier can make all the difference to our level of brainpower, as can a daytime power nap of a similar time.
Increasing your exercise regime
Aerobic exercise enhances memory through increased cerebral blood flow, the associated elevation of mood, and reduction of stress, making it easier to learn and remember. A new study has revealed that for the over fifties, undertaking several 45-60 minute sessions of moderate-to-vigorous walking, running, swimming, cycling or rowing each week can help boost general cognition, while resistance training using weights can improve executive function, memory and working memory.
Stilling the mind
Taking time out for quiet, reflective thought develops greater critical thinking and strengthens the understanding of what we learn and our memory. Regular mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to enhance working memory, the bonus being that it leads to structural changes in the brain associated with increased grey-matter volume, along with improved psychological wellbeing and emotional regulation.
The most important appointment of the day is the one we make with ourselves to press pause, quieten the mind and think. As with any skill we are seeking to improve in, it’s always the practice that counts.
If we’re always in a rush, doing too many things at once and chronically tired, it’s always going to be more difficult to think well and remember what matters. While it’s often tempting to take the easy option and outsource our memory to Google, the magic of having a plastic brain means we always have the ability to learn and lay down new memory. What counts is putting in the practice and keeping the brain in tip-top shape by embracing those lifestyle choices as shown by the brain science to make a positive difference.
Maintaining a high level of brain fitness is the best way to enhance memory and cognition.
Dr Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high-performance thinking and is the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance Brain. (Wiley). Find out more at www.drjennybrockis.com.