A Fun Way to Keep Your Memory Sharp

Experts say trying new things can go a long way for the brain

Memory slips loom larger as people grow older. Forgetting why you walked into a room, or what you were supposed to pick up at the store can provoke nagging anxiety — not to mention dark humor about impending decrepitude.

If your next search for the car keys sets off such thoughts, keep in mind two reassuring facts. First, some loss of memory is completely normal. Second, there’s a simple, enjoyable technique that can minimize age-related decline.

The specifics vary from person to person, but the idea is the same: Change things up.

“As adults approach retirement age, they come to a fork in the road,” says Michael Yassa, PhD, director of the Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. “You’ve been intellectually and emotionally engaged for a very long time. You can choose to cease that engagement, or you can plan a rich retirement filled with activities.

“We see clear differentiations in brain function for those who get out and about and do lots of new things, as opposed to those who decide to stay at home and watch TV.”

The comfort of settling down into a predictable pattern may be enticing, but the brain craves stimulation, says Dana Boebinger, a neuroscientist and PhD student at Harvard University and MIT. “In order to keep your memory sharp,” she reports, “you have to do exciting, interesting, challenging stuff.”

From a scientific perspective, memory can be broken up into three components: encoding, the act of absorbing a piece of information into our memory system; storage, the process of retaining the information; and retrieval, getting the information back into our conscious awareness. The normal aging process can slow, or inhibit, each of those steps.

“In general, memories are a compressed version of reality,” says Yassa. “With age, they’re even more compressed. You lose a lot of details. You may remember what happened, but not when and where it happened.”

This compression is even seen in short-term memory: “In the laboratory, we have individuals look at images that are similar (but not identical) and ask them if they’re the same thing they’ve seen before,” he says. “Older adults are more likely to say, yes, it’s the same thing. That suggests their initial encoding of the memory was not at the highest level of detail.”

“We see clear differentiations in brain function for those who get out and about and do lots of new things, as opposed to those who decide to stay at home and watch TV.”

Yassa emphasizes that, unless a brain is diseased, these changes tend to be subtle, and don’t impair a person’s ability to live a normal life. Indeed, some types of memory loss — such as having the name of a person or object on the tip of your tongue, but having trouble retrieving it — are common and nothing to worry about.

The time to be concerned — and see a doctor — is when you experience “a pervasive pattern of decline over time,” he says. “The mild forgetfulness we all get as older adults is perfectly fine.”

But if you wish to remain as sharp as possible, he recommends creating “an enriched environment” by engaging in activities that involve “a little bit of physicality and a lot of social interaction.”

Granted, “social interaction” can be a challenge during a pandemic, but there are many high-tech ways to stay in touch with family and friends. And those hours spent at home can be utilized in brain-boosting ways.

“Learning new dances, a new language, new skills — all of those are incredibly valuable” for people who are approaching, or have reached, senior-citizen status, he says. The combination of novelty and light exercise is “a kind of fertilizer that surrounds brain cells with nutrients.”

Whenever we encounter something unexpected, it prompts the release of dopamine, which is “very good for the brain,” according to Yassa. Sabina Brennan, PhD, an Irish neuroscientist and psychologist and author of the book 100 Days to a Younger Brain, agrees. “Novelty is a critical element of neuroplasticity, the human brain’s amazing capacity to adapt and change across the lifespan,” she says.

“Stretching yourself a little, doing things beyond your comfort zone, or pushing yourself into situations that require you to cope with challenges will change your brain chemistry. This will impact positively on your mood and your brain function.”

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: noting and retaining new information enhanced humans’ prospects of survival. But how far must we stretch ourselves before we see results? Are small shifts sufficient, or should we try something radically different?

Yassa admits there is little research on that specific question, but he agrees with Brennan that a key factor is whether the new activity elicits positive emotions. “I think people have to go out of their comfort zone a little bit, but not so far out of their comfort zone that they get frustrated,” he says. “If a novel experience such as switching from reading one genre of book to another is exciting and interesting, it’s a winner. If it’s frustrating or annoying, it’s not going to be beneficial. If you’re a musician, you may not have to learn a new instrument — just learn new pieces all the time, or perform in a different group.”

Both Yassa and Brennan have another, somewhat surprising recommendation: Participate in activities that stimulate as many senses as possible. “This is what we instinctively do as children,” Brennan bemoans. “But, alas, when we go to school, we are discouraged from touching, tasting, etc. Actively engaging your senses can play a powerful role in embedding memories in your brain.”

For example, cooks who experiment with a different cuisine will expose themselves to unfamiliar smells, which tend to linger in the memory. “The olfactory system evolved together with the memory system of the brain, so it has direct access to it.” Yassa says. “It’s very privileged! Olfaction is one of the most powerful stimulants for our memory system.”

Indeed, in a recent New York Times essay, neuroscientist and best-selling author Daniel Levitin, PhD, revealed that, as part of his effort to keep his memory sharp, “I go to new parks and forests where I’m more likely to encounter the smells of new grasses and trees.” He also samples new artisanal chocolates whenever possible, stimulating both taste and smell. That recommendation should not be a hard sell.

Trying new podcasts — Brennan has one called Super Brain — could also provide valuable stimulation. In addition, she endorses an everyday behavior that will be novel for many of us: staying mindful.

“Our ability to form memories for recent events does appear to decline with age,” she says. “But in many instances this might not be due to failures of memory, but rather failures of attention. If you haven’t attended to where you put your keys then you can’t encode the memory, and it is pretty much impossible to recall a memory that wasn’t encoded.”

So, to keep a sharp memory as we grow older, the key steps are clear. Be present. Stay physically active. Keep challenging yourself, in fun, engaging ways. And above all, stop that internal chatter that says, “I’m really getting old.”

“People who classify themselves as older and who expect memory to decline with age actually perform more poorly on memory tests,” Brennan says. “You can shape your brain not only by the actions you choose to take, but also by the way that you think about and approach life.”

That’s good to remember.