(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
Sure, we know that crossword puzzles and learning to play a musical instrument help keep your memory in tip-top shape. But these less obvious, yet simple, activities sharpen your memory as well:
Aromatherapy isn’t just for relaxing at the spa. The woodsy scent of rosemary can help you develop new long-term memories, says Mark Moss, head of the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom. “Rosemary has been one of the main aromas I have studied due to its long association with memory,” says Moss, who’s been conducting rosemary research since 2003.
(MORE: 3 Easy Ways to Whip Your Brain Into Shape)
In a recent study for the university, Moss and his partner found that people situated in rooms scented with rosemary essential oil were better able to remember events and future tasks than people in non-scented rooms. What’s going on? People in the rosemary rooms were found to have higher blood concentration levels of 1,8-cineole, a compound small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier, Moss says. “1,8-cineole has pharmacological (drug-like) activity in the brain. Specifically, it increases stimulation of cholinergic neurons, [which are] strongly implicated in memory. Indeed, it is these that are massively depleted in dementia of the Alzheimer type,” notes Moss. He observed that peppermint and sage can also improve memory performance, while lavender actually impairs memory.
Start Drinking Coffee
You know the jolt of energy and focus you get from drinking a cup of coffee? Well, it turns out coffee's revving power can make your brain work better.
A recent study suggests that drinking coffee after learning something new can strengthen your memory of it. In a 2014 study involving non-caffeine drinkers at Johns Hopkins University, Michael Yassa and his team gave a portion of participants a caffeine tablet five minutes after studying a series of images. The caffeine content of the tablet was equal to about one cup of strong coffee. Twenty-four hours later, the caffeinated group was better able to distinguish small differences when they were shown slightly altered versions of the photos a second time.
“One way to think of it is that caffeine may allow you to store memories as you normally would, but it may boost your resolution a bit,” says Zach Reagh, a graduate student who works with Yassa at The Neuroscience of Memory, Aging and Dementia Lab at the University of California, Irvine.
Why does this happen? Caffeine causes your brain to release norepinephrine, which may enhance the process of memory consolidation, Reagh says.
And if you remember something 24 hours later, it’s more likely you’ll remember it in the long term. “If you can ‘hack your brain’ with something like caffeine to make storage of the information faster, more efficient, or stronger, it stands to reason that you have upped the odds of laying down the foundation for a more stable memory,” Reagh says.
Want to remember every detail of a special event, like what you were wearing, whom you talked to and what you nibbled on? Try lifting weights for 20 minutes afterward.
(MORE: 7 Brain-Boosting Effects of Exercise)
A 2014 study at Georgia Institute of Technology found that episodic memory (which is the long-term memory of an event) is enhanced by a short burst of resistance exercise. Participants in the study who did 50 repetitions on a knee-extension machine, directly after being shown a set of photos, remembered 10 percent more than the participants who didn’t stress their muscles.
The strength training had an even greater positive effect on the memory of photos that evoked an emotional response. The key element in this equation is short-term stress — in this case, intense physical exercise. Researchers tested the saliva of both groups, and the exercise group showed higher levels of norepinephrine, the type of adrenaline that has been shown to enhance memories.
"Our study indicates that people don't have to dedicate large amounts of time to give their brain a boost," Lisa Weinberg, the Georgia Tech graduate student who led the project, told the university.
Thinking about quitting smoking? Take heart: Stopping smoking not only decreases your chances of developing lung disease, heart disease, cancer and physical symptoms of premature aging, but can also give your memory a boost.
In a study conducted at Northumbria University in 2011, three sets of participants — smokers, former smokers (who had been off cigarettes for 2 1/2 years) and nonsmokers — were told to visit various locations on campus and perform a task at each. This action tests “prospective memory,” which is remembering to do something in the future. Nonsmokers were best able to perform the tasks correctly, and former smokers performed 25 percent better than smokers.
Another study by researchers at McGill University and the University of Edinburgh published in 2015 showed that smoking thins the brain’s cortex at a faster rate than normal aging does, accelerating cognitive decline in adults.
Previous studies have already shown that smoking hurts your ability to learn new things and remember them later, and researchers from the Northumbria study believe their study further supports the theory that smoking damages the areas of the brain critical to memory formation and retrieval. Plus, their study boasts a silver lining — that it’s never too late to quit smoking and improve your brain health.
Have Sex Regularly
What’s easier than sudoku, more fun than weight-lifting and helps you remember where you left your keys? Sex, of course.
(MORE: How Sex Helps Your Brain)
Consistent sexual activity has been shown to increase the production of new neurons (a process known as neurogenesis) in the brains of middle-aged rats, says a 2013 study at the University of Maryland. (Rats are routinely used in medical studies because their genetic, biologic and behavioral characteristics are so similar to humans'.) As long as the rats continued to have sex throughout testing, age-related cognitive problems — including weakened memory — actually showed improvement thanks to the effect of neurogenesis on their hippocampus.
“[The hippocampus] is a really fascinating part of the brain,” says Reagh. “It gets input from and sends output to many other regions, and it seems to take all of that information in, bind everything together into a coherent memory and orchestrate with the rest of the brain to store the memory over time. To a large extent, memory is what the hippocampus does.”
Do Your Cardio
Even if you feel like you forget things more often than you used to, it’s possible to pump up your brain’s memory center by doing aerobic exercise twice a week, says a study featured in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Researchers took a group of women age 70 to 80 with probable mild cognitive impairment (the transitional phase between a healthy aging brain and dementia, Reagh says) and split them into three groups — cardio training, resistance training and balance training; each group exercised twice a week for six months. The women who did aerobic training showed the most significant increase in the size of their hippocampus, one of the major parts of the brain that supports learning and memory.
“It seems that exercise either increases the birth rate [of brain cells in the hippocampus], or allows for more of the cells to stick around once born,” Reagh says. “Overall, this might cause a small but detectable increase in hippocampal volume.” Whether a larger hippocampus will definitively result in better memory performance remains to be seen, but Reagh and other researchers are encouraged by this study and others like it.
Keep a Sensible Sleep Schedule
If you want to remember the things you hear, see and do each day, get a good night’s sleep each night. Though scientists have well proven that sleep is essential to the long-term storage of memories — ever tried to remember small details after a night of tossing and turning? — a new study has identified a curious pattern involving memory and sleep: When you’re ingesting new information, your brain will actually keep you awake and when your brain is ready to convert your short-term memories into long-term memories, it will send you to sleep.
In a 2015 study of fruit flies, researchers at Brandeis University found that exact pattern, which was dictated by the fly brains’ memory cells. The flies with more active memory cells slept more than flies with less active memory cells.
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