The old adage; ‘Use It or Lose It’, is most applicable when it comes to keeping our minds active.
No matter what age we are, we can all have ‘senior moments’ from time to time and as we age they seem to be happening more frequently.
How many times have you walked into another room and couldn’t remember what you went in there for?
Have you gone crazy trying to find where you left your keys?
Or have you forgotten a person’s name the second after you were introduced to them?
According to Harvard Medical School, ageing alone is generally not a cause for cognitive decline and there are a number of simple things we can do to keep our minds sharp.
“…a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
A Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School says cognitive fitness goes far beyond memory. It embraces thinking, learning, recognition, communication, and sound decision-making and that cognitive fitness is the bedrock of a rewarding and self-sufficient life.
I’ve had the repeated pleasure, on both radio and national television, of interviewing one of the gurus of improving memory Max Hitchins, affectionately known as Max The Memory Man.
I first met Max decades ago when he was World President Global Speakers Federation and the National President of National Speakers Association of Australia.
While Max is now a septuagenarian (in his 70’s), his memory is infinitely better than most people half his age.
One of the regular interviews I always enjoy doing with Max is leading up to the Melbourne Cup each year because he’s achieved such an amazing feat.
Max Hitchins, who is a big fan of horse racing and in particular The Melbourne Cup, has memorised the names of the winners as well as the second and third place getters of every Melbourne Cup for the last 100 years, along with an interesting piece of trivia about each race.
I’ve often played ‘Stump Max’ live on radio with Max sitting opposite me in the studio with no notes in front of him and not one person who flooded the openline to test his skills could manage to trip him up.
Max is a key-note speaker, adult educator and corporate trainer and his eBooks – How to Develop a Memory like an Elephant (hospitalitydoctor.com.au) focus on what he sees as the three key areas we struggle the most; remembering lists, remembering speeches and remembering names.
Always eager to pass on the techniques he uses to develop and maintain such a great memory, Max certainly practices what he preaches.
First and foremost Max says we must exercise both the mind and the body and he combines the two each morning when he swims. Instead of counting laps Max uses that time to commit particular facts to memory.
Max’s top tips on Remembering Names
- Concentrate when being introduced to new people
- When you hear their name try to associate them with someone you already know with the same name
- Spell their name in your head or ask them how they spell it. Obviously you wouldn’t ask John how he spelt his name but you could ask Susie if she spells her name with a Z or an S. Or compliment them on their name if it’s different and ask its origin. This helps start a conversation and helps concrete their name in your mind
- Use their name as soon as you can in conversation with them to further reinforce it in your mind.
- One method that Max has developed and swears by is his Animal Alphabet where he associates an animal with the same initial as their name like if he meets a Kevin or Karen he automatically associates them with a Kangaroo or when he’s introduced to Sandra and Simon or anyone whose name starts with an S, he thinks of a Snake.
‘Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.’
― Jeffrey Eugenides, US Novelist
Studies have shown that by maintaining good basic health habits, like keeping active, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and limiting our intake of alcohol and bad fats, we can help protect our brain’s decline and help reduce the risk of dementia.
It is imperative, however, to seek immediate medical advice if you feel you or someone close to you is possibly having far too many ‘senior moments’ and there could be something underlying that is more serious. Doctors are trained to understand and diagnose the difference between age-related memory changes and the brain fluctuations caused by dementia.
Early diagnosis can make a huge difference to the treatment and its success.
It’s frustrating when our brain fails us, especially when it’s a simple thing that we can’t immediately recall, yet we know that we know it.
Thankfully after decades of research, from experts like The Harvard Medical School, we can learn how to keep our minds active.
Their doctors have identified six steps in their Guide to Cognitive Fitness called Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, which when combined together correctly, can help us stay mentally sharp and fit and sidestep threats to our brain’s wellness.
By the time we reach 60, more than half of us have concerns about our memory and it’s never too early to start exercising our grey matter.
- Never stop learning
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ― Plutarch ancient Greek writer
Experts have learned through extensive research that keeping mentally active and challenging your brain with mental exercises will activate the processes that help maintain and stimulate individual brain cells and the way they communicate with each other.
Reading a book, taking a course, like cooking or wine tasting or knitting, learning a language or how to play a musical instrument or doing a jigsaw puzzle or pursuing other hobbies will all help you maintain better brain health.
“Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.” ― Neil Gaiman, UK Author
Most daily newspapers and magazines have free crosswords, Sudoku and brain teasers or you can download lots of brain exercising and memory games for free online.
“A man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”
― Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. US physician & writer
- Give your brain a back-up
- Write down important dates and events so you don’t use your mental energy trying to remember upcoming appointments.
- Electronic calendars on your smart phones and devices can be easily programmed to send you reminder alerts leading up to each event.
- Designate specific spots in your home for all the items you use regularly like your keys, phone and glasses so you’re not wasting time frantically rushing around the place in search of them. My dad was a stickler for having a place for everything and everything being in its place.
- Place items at the doorway that you need to take outside or leave a note near the doorknob as a reminder.
- Self –fulfilling prophecy
We all joke about having ‘senior moments’ but it seems that if we say it too often and buy into the negative stereotype about ageing and memory loss, the worse we do at memory tests.
The power of positive thinking is important in believing you are in control of your memory function and then it’s equally important to regularly implement the correct steps and exercises to maintain good brain function.
I’ve always envied those who live in countries, with an afternoon siesta and now experts are suggesting, regardless of whether you’ve had a restful night sleep or not, to take a 20 minute afternoon nap to help you focus, increase your ability to learn and help save your memory.
- Be social
Humans are social creatures and we know that socialising helps with depression and lowers the risk of dementia but it’s now been discovered to help maintain cognitive fitness.
Many people are reluctant to engage in social conversation as they don’t feel they’re informed enough to carry out a good discussion. This creates low self-esteem and can keep you even more isolated.
If you have access to the internet you can do an engine search or regularly subscribe to various free publications that will send you the news of the day, or word of the day, quote of the day or this day in history and music.
If you think of your brain as a hard drive on a computer, when you receive all this new information it stimulates your memory’s data base and gives you fresh new interesting facts and information to store and then add to your conversations and social debates with family and friends.
“The biggest wall you have to climb is the one you build in your mind: Never let your mind talk you out of your dreams, trick you into giving up. Never let your mind become the greatest obstacle to success. To get your mind on the right track, the rest will follow.”― Roy T. Bennett, Author and Thought Leader
I hope your New Year has started off well and 2019 is your best year yet!
Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster