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You Must Remember This

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM


Copyright © Illustration: Clifford Alejandro


Exercise your brain. Cross-train your mind. And you, too, can have a memory that misses nothing. UCLA's unforgettable memory expert tell you how.

Aging's physical toll is hard to miss: wrinkling skin, a growing list of ailments and an older body's inability to perform or recover the way it once did. That's bad enough, but the toll time takes on the brain is just as rough — and, for most of us, far more frightening.

Fortunately, UCLA has a memory master whose books, classes and lectures help thinking folks of all ages stay mentally fit: Gary Small '73, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of the new book The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young. His prescription for snappy synapses? The same regime we all use for our bodies: exercise. Regular brain workouts, says Small, are the secret to keeping your mind in good shape.

Small, whose previous books include The Memory Bible and The Memory Prescription, is finding a growing audience for his counsel on ways to give the brain regular workouts. His center's memory training course — a five-week session adapted from Small's research and taught by volunteers — was originally intended for seniors but was quickly crashed by baby boomers, younger adults and even teens.

"This speaks to the fact that memory is an issue for all ages," Small says. "It's not just the 70-year-old grandmother who forgets her lunch date, but it's also the soccer mom who forgets to pick up her kids and the student who needs to remember what's going to be on the test."

To audiences of all ages, Small's message is the same: Lifestyle factors — most notably mental activity, diet, exercise and stress levels — are often more important than genes in determining how well our brains age.

The evidence is mounting that keeping the mind active will keep it sharp, Small says. Those exercises can include crossword and Sudoku puzzles, learning a foreign language, taking up a musical instrument or exploring new genres in leisure reading.

"You can cross-train your brain," adds Small: Do jigsaw puzzles one day for the more visual right brain, crosswords the next to strengthen the verbal abilities on the left side. To stay with the analogy, don't try going from weekend warrior to marathon runner overnight. "You want to train your brain, not strain it," says Small. "It's important to find things that are both fun and challenging, so that you'll keep going back to them and not create stress, without being so easy that they're not interesting."

Lifestyle factors — mental activity, diet, exercise, and stress levels — are often more important than genes in determining how well our brains age.

One of Small's basic memory tools is something he calls Look, Snap, Connect. "Look" reminds us to actively observe what we want to learn; "snap" involves creating a mental snapshot of the material; and "connect" is the process of linking the mental snapshot with the new information.

The technique can be used for such tasks as remembering errands and connecting names to faces. Need to go to the post office and then to the market to pick up dairy products? Picture your postal carrier juggling eggs. If you're introduced to a Mr. Carpenter, imagine him wearing a tool belt. Visualize the face of the "Bill" you just met on U.S. currency. "We've found that in a short period of time, we can significantly improve memory performance with this kind of technique," says Small.

How we care for our bodies also has implications on how we think, in areas such as diet, for example. Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables work against the stress caused by free radicals, which wear down our DNA and accelerate the aging process. Omega-3 fats from foods such as fish, olive oil and nuts fight not only oxidation, but also inflammation, which may also be involved in brain decline. Carbohydrates come in good and bad forms — those from processed foods tend to spike blood sugar levels, which can damage brain health over time; eating small meals throughout the day and low-glycemic-index carbohydrates helps to keep blood sugar on an even keel. Calorie control is also important: Overconsumption resulting in excess body weight can lead to hypertension and diabetes, increasing the risk of cognitive impairment from stroke and the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Physical conditioning also has mental benefits. Small points to studies indicating that just walking 10 minutes a day lowers the risk for Alzheimer's. Regular cardiovascular exercise inacreases the level of endorphins — natural antidepressants — and can improve focus. Activity also reduces stress, and chronically high levels of stress can wreak havoc on the brain as well as the body.

In The Longevity Bible, Small expands on these four essential strategies for brain health, adding four more: cultivating healthy relationships, maintaining a positive outlook, using the best medicines and treatments to look and feel younger, and mastering our environment by reducing emotional and physical clutter.

"If you have healthy intimate relationships and a positive outlook, you're less prone to depression, which can affect your memory," Small says. "And if you take care of your brain health, you're going to be more likely to stay physically fit, reduce stress and eat a healthy diet."

Forget This Not: Dr. Small's Five Tips for Memory Mastery

1. Look, Snap, Connect. The person you think of as having a photographic memory simply uses good techniques. When learning potentially forgettable information such as someone’s name, stay focused ("look"), make a mental picture of a visual image related to the information ("snap"), and link the image with the information ("connect"). For example, picture the woman you just met named Shirley as having deep dimples, like Shirley Temple.

2. Group Think. When there are large groups of items to memorize, find common characteristics that enable you to create memory clusters. Instead of trying to remember the six items you have to get at the market, for example, keep in mind that three of them are cereals and three are dairy products.

3. There Are Places You Remember. Constantly forgetting where you put your car keys? Have a spot where you automatically put them each day. Worried that you’ll forget to take home the leftover food that’s in the refrigerator at work? Put your car keys in the refrigerator with it — not only will you be unable to leave without the food, but placing your keys in such an unusual place will not easily escape your mind.

4. One Task at a Time. Multitasking breeds forgetfulness. If you're driving to work trying to recall whether you turned off the sprinklers, it’s because your mind was elsewhere when you were engaged in the task.

5. Keep Lists. Brains are like computers — there is only so much information they can store. "To do" lists and other written and computerized information filing systems help to rid the brain of clutter, freeing up space that can be used to remember other things.

Visit www.aging.ucla.edu or www.drgarysmall.com to find more memory tricks, purchase Small’s memory books and audio aids, link to other memory Web sites or learn about the UCLA Center on Aging programs.