Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My memory is terrible. To be honest, it always has been. I seem to spend half my time searching for my keys or wondering whether I forgot to turn off the stove and lights. Could memory training help?

Dear Reader: Ready for a short answer that you're not likely to forget?

Yes.

As long as problems with recall do not arise from either medical or physiological issues, it is indeed possible to improve one's memory. And it's not just a matter of mastering complex systems or relying on clever tricks. An intriguing study published in the scientific journal Neuron shows that a certain type of memory training has a measurable and lasting effect on networks that connect different regions of our brains.

Researchers compared the brain activity of 23 top memory athletes with 23 people with no memory training at all. After just six weeks of training, scans of the brains of the amateurs began to resemble those of the memory athletes.

The training focused on a strategy known as "method of loci," also sometimes called the memory palace. The idea is that you mentally "place" things you want to remember -- a person's name, where you put the phone bill, what your spouse asked you to pick up at the store -- into a landscape you know really well. Then when you picture yourself moving through that landscape, you'll encounter the items you wanted to remember.

What was striking about the study wasn't just that the amateurs significantly improved their memories. In the months after learning and adopting the method of loci technique, the new pathways created in their brains were still there.

That's all pretty high-octane stuff. But science shows that maintaining a good memory is a whole-body endeavor, and that simple lifestyle changes can make a difference.

Here at UCLA, we have a memory program for adults with known risk factors for cognitive decline. These risk factors include being sedentary, being overweight, having diabetes or having a family history of Alzheimer's or dementia. Studies show that stress and depression can also have a hand in memory issues.

Participants in the UCLA program improve their diets and are asked to exercise regularly and work on stress reduction. They also do brain training, some of it quite similar to the regimens reported in the Neuron study. They make a point of memorizing the kind of information that we now relegate to our electronic devices, such as a shopping list, frequently called phone numbers, birthdays of family and friends, addresses, and one or two credit card numbers.

At the end of 12 weeks, participants reported improvements not only to their memories, but also to their moods and general sense of well-being. They enjoyed the challenges of shopping without a list and skipping the autodial feature on their phones to make calls themselves.

Perhaps a similar memory program is available in your area. And even if not, an improved diet, more exercise and basic memory practice are changes that you can incorporate into your own life.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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