If you find yourself forgetting simple things — what you gave your mom for her birthday three months ago; the name of the woman you ran into at the store, even though you just had a great conversation with her at a dinner party earlier in the week — don’t fret.
The hippocampus, the part of our brain that is responsible for short-term memory, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of aging, says neurologist Majid Fotuhi, MD, chairman and CEO of NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center. In fact, after the age of 40, it shrinks by 0.5 percent per year.
But even if some memory loss is a given, what most people don’t realize is that the brain is an extremely malleable organ, Fotuhi tells Yahoo Health. Barring people with pure Alzheimer’s, anyone can grow their hippocampus within a period of three months — and at any age.
First, what shrinks a hippocampus: Poor diet, a lack of exercise, not sleeping enough, health conditions (such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity), and stress and depression can all contribute. When patients come to his clinic, Fotuhi tests them first for these factors, and once he has dealt with their medical conditions, he sets his patients on a track to better brain health by emphasizing good nutrition and physical activity in tandem with brain-training methods.
He suggests some strategies to sharpen memory:
- Try to memorize a favorite poem or song.
- Learn a new language. (You can spend as little as 10 minutes a day doing so!)
- Memorize a route to and from a new location. You can use GPS to get there, but use your memory to get back.
- Memorize 10 names at one social gathering you attend this month, then 15 names at another gathering next month, then 20, 30, 40, and so on. You can memorize a lot more names that you think you can!
- When you visit a zoo or an aquarium, memorize the names of the animals you see that day and quiz yourself the next day.
The more you use your brain, the better shape it will be in and the better your memory will be. That means that those who are in professions that require strong memories have an edge over others, Fotuhi says, since they are constantly stimulating the hippocampus.
Yahoo Health spoke to people in a range of professions that require strong memorization skills. Here are their secrets:
The Language Interpreter
(Photo: Getty Images)
Memory Pro Tip: Pair words with pictures.
As a freelance interpreter for the U.S. State Department, Natasha Bonilla is often called upon to interpret from English to Spanish and back at high-level meetings, where the topics under discussion are usually completely new to her.
Preparing for these sessions — she’s often not given more than a couple weeks lead time — means doing lots of research on her own, as well as memorizing as many of the terms particular to the theme in question in both English and Spanish.
How she does it: “I’m very visual when it comes to memory; I write out my glossaries or type them up and I make flash cards,” Bonilla says. “I also try and visualize the concept and understand it as best as I can.”
Take a subject like fracking — a hot topic these days, and one that Bonilla has had to come up to speed on by herself. As a first step, she looks for images that help her understand what fracking is and how it works. At the same time, she develops a glossary of terms and pairs those terms up with the images she has found. The image-terminology match helps her mind both understand and retain the topic at hand, she explains.
If a meeting goes on for a number of days, Bonilla is able to keep revising and adding to her glossary by asking the experts for any terms she may have missed. The more she becomes familiar with a topic, the easier it is to retain the terminology and interpret, she says.
Bonilla also works with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, and she’s often in court interpreting for a wide range of cases involving Spanish speakers. Here, too, “I’m always learning new things — idiomatic phrases and jargon for different kinds of cases, including those dealing with international narcotics,” she says.
Bonilla interprets both consecutively — speaking after the source-language speaker has finished — and simultaneously, which calls for accurate and thorough translation of what a speaker says at virtually the same time. Although she has a computer and her glossaries, she still relies on having a complete command of Spanish and English — and a very strong memory.
The Opera Singer
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Memory Pro Tip: Write it down — more than once, if you have to!
To prepare for the part of Marcello — one of the lead male roles in Giacomo Puccini’s timeless opera “La Bohème” — baritone Don Marrazzo wrote out all the lyrics to his part several times and read them over again and again to imprint them on his brain.
The singer, also a former casting director and executive director for Astral Arts who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in voice pedagogy at Penn State, sings in many different languages (Italian, German, and French, among others). Over the course of his career, he’s performed different musical styles ranging from opera to musical theater, and from classical to jazz, all of which require strong memorization skills.
And every time, his first move is to write out all his lyrics — more than once.
“I find that there’s a connection between physicality — writing the lyrics out — and memory, regardless of the language or style I have to perform in,” Marrazzo says.
Singing also requires memorizing musical notes, rhythm, pitch, and dynamics, and while many performers tend to listen to recordings to prepare for their roles, Marrazzo always plays his notes out on a piano first. This way, he says, he learns them correctly and retains them properly, thereby ensuring they’re there in his brain if he has to perform the same piece at a later date.
“If you’re listening to a recording and the singer has taken certain liberties, you tend to learn those as well,” he says. That’s why “it’s only after I know a piece in terms of the language, the rhythm, the pitch and so on, that I listen to a recording of it.”
Marrazzo urges his voice students to also write down their lyrics and play their notes in order to memorize them properly and build a solid foundation upon which to apply their artistry.
The Emergency Room Nurse
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Memory Pro Tip: Repeat the thing you’re trying to remember over and over to yourself.
With patients arriving in varying degrees of distress, orders being barked out, and all the other rush that’s characteristic of a super-fast-paced hospital emergency room, nurses cannot tune out for even a second.
Just ask Laura Freire, who worked for six years in the emergency department at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey.
“Things happen super quick in the ER, where situations are often life-or-death, and somehow, you’ve just got to remember everything,” says Freire, who now works as an advanced nurse practitioner at High Mountain Health in Waldwick, New Jersey.
Making sure she was always on the ball often meant “repeating what the doctors shouted out — the name of a medication, for example — to myself over and over again, until I got to where I needed to be and before I moved on to the next task,” she says. “Keeping track of patients — remembering who needed what, and when — was another challenge, and I would use tricks to remember faces, like if someone had a funny eyebrow or something that stood out physically. That made it easier to associate what the doctor had barked out with a name.”
Freire used brain-training apps such as Lumosity to help her with her short-term memory, particularly with regard to remembering what medicine or procedure a particular patient needed after arrival in the ER.
“A doctor will say, ‘I need you to repeat this — a blood test, for instance — in six hours, but with all that you have going on, there’s a good chance you’ll forget that in six hours,” she says.
ER nurses constantly log back into their computer system, she says, and also try their best to help each other out by reminding their colleagues of all the tasks they need to perform.
The Financial Market Pro
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Memory Pro Tip: Think linearly.
Global financial markets move up and down every second.
John Manley, chief equity market strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management, needs to be on top of all those movements. A frequent public speaker whose views inform major financial decisions of both individuals and institutions, he must also have at-the-ready the latest economic data and statistics, as well as economic and financial market history, both near-term and farther back in time.
All of this requires a strong memory, which Manley constantly keeps in tune and credits for being able to speak for 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch without a note in hand. He reads a great deal and makes sure he stays on top of the news (financial and other).
His forte lies in making mental connections between events — past and present — and facts and figures, memorizing subject matter in a linear way. This, he says, helps him to deliver his speeches (and dig up factoids to use in these speeches) without faltering.
“I’m a great believer in structure, the idea that something leads to something else,” he says. “Once I get on a road with a certain thing I want to say, I know what it’s going to lead to next and where it goes after that.”
That linear approach, he says, prompts him to reach into his memory to dig out the facts and figures that are stored there, as well as when he has to use them.
“Of course, someone is always going to interrupt me at Point Two or Point Three of my talk, and that throws me off course, but I have a couple of canned phrases that I have also memorized and that help me segue back to where I need to be,” Manley tells Yahoo Health.
Now in his 60s, Manley also draws upon his long-term memory, which he feels has improved with age.
“I’ll see something happen in the markets and it will be a repeat of what I saw happen in 1984,” he says. “Being able to now transfer both memories and experience is helpful at this point.”
The Airline Pilot
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Memory Pro Tip: Visualize (in 3-D).
Flying a plane is like being in the theater.
So says Paul Carroll, a pilot for United Airlines. Everything is tightly scripted, and “so long as you hold on to your lines, you can work through any problem,” he says.
Being a pilot actually requires a strong long-term and short-term memory, as well as muscle memory. A pilot must engage long-term memory for tasks such as remembering the function of all the switches on an aircraft, as well as all the procedures that must be followed. Meanwhile, muscle memory is necessary for what Carroll calls “the use of physical flows,” or specific orders and routines at each phase of a flight (take off, landing) for engaging switches and using flight computers.
But it is the short-term memory — used to perform activities such as following air-traffic control instructions — that is the most important, in Carroll’s view. Both the long-term and muscle memories have been trained to kick in automatically, he says, and many flying pilots (himself included) verbalize their process as they taxi out, take off and land. But it’s the short-term memory that comes into play in unforeseen situations, in which pilots must make evaluative decisions.
Being able to draw a three-dimensional picture in your mind is a key skill for a pilot’s short-term memory capabilities, Carroll says. “You need to be able to see yourself in your mind’s eye, where the airport is, where the other planes are, and so on,” he says. “You need to visualize yourself vertically, horizontally, in time and in space. In your mind’s eye, you need to be able to see where you’ll be in the near future, and not just now.”
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