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Blanking on names? Left your iPhone in a cab? Our friends at Health tested whether the latest science-backed recall tricks will really turn your mind into a steel trap.
I used to have a memory that amazed people, but in the last few years, I’ve had trouble remembering names and movie titles. (“You know, the one about the guy who goes somewhere? It won that award . . . “) I hope to have many years of sharp thinking ahead of me – I’m in my mid-40s, nowhere near senior-moments territory – so I got to wondering: is there something I should be doing now to counteract the lapses that already seem to be taking place?
There’s no way around the fact that memory erodes as we get older. The hippocampus, the area of your brain responsible for building memory, loses 5 percent of its nerve cells with each passing decade. Plus, aging slows production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter vital to learning and memory. Based on these facts, scientists once believed that a person’s mental ability peaked early in adulthood, then went downhill from there. But over the last few decades, research has found that adult brains are still able to form new, memory-building neural networks in a process known as neuroplasticity. The reassuring latest thinking: with a little effort, anyone can boost their power of recollection.
To test this theory in the real world, I tried an array of research-backed brain-sharpening techniques over one six-week period. Am I now able to list all 44 US presidents? No. But can I more easily summon up where I put my keys? Yes. And I think being able to leave my apartment and lock the door is a more valuable life skill than remembering James K. Polk. Here’s what worked for me – and what fell flat.
Technique #1: Play brain games
Puzzles like Sudoku and crosswords may improve memory and delay brain decline, though experts are not yet sure why. “My guess is that playing them activates synapses in the whole brain, including the memory areas,” says Marcel Danesi, PhD, author of Extreme Brain Workout. Research so far is decidedly mixed; some studies have found that, while doing crossword puzzles may make you better at remembering the capital of Burkina Faso, there’s little evidence they’ll boost your performance at more general tasks, like remembering where your car is parked. But a 2011 study showed that participants who played a computer game called Double Decision for six years improved their concentration so much that they had a 50 percent lower rate of car accidents.
I decided to try an online brain-training program called Lumosity, which neuroscientists from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley have used in their own studies; its creators claim that 97 percent of users improve their memory in just 10 hours of playing time. First I answered a series of questions at lumosity.com to identify which of my cognitive processes, including memory, could use a little help. Then I received a personalized training regimen. A 10-minute daily series of games is free, and a more advanced program is available for $ 12.95 a month. (Being cheap, I stuck with the former.) The games are pure fun – remembering a pattern of blocks, spotting a bird in a field – and are based on what research has found to improve concentration and other cognitive skills.
My grade: B-
By the end of a month, my “brain performance index” score rose 6 percent – not amazing in the Lumosity world, but respectable. The main problem: you have to play the games every day, forever, to keep up the benefits. I’ve mostly kept up. (Except on weekends. Or if I’ve had a busy week. OK, I haven’t kept up.)
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