“I’ve spent 40 years studying the brain, and this is the #1 habit I recommend for memory retention.”

By | March 17, 2024

Brain and weights concept

Experiencing memory loss and becoming more forgetful is sometimes attributed to a natural part of aging. According to CDC data, 1 in 10 adults age 45 and older report memory loss. Age is certainly natural and out of your control, but is declining memory retention inevitable?

“Most of us have a lot more control than we realize when it comes to memory retention and brain health,” says Dr. Gary Small, MDthe chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center.

This is not to say that you can prevent cognitive decline 100% or prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s all by yourself. Remember, we still don’t fully understand the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. However, Small has been studying the brain for more than forty years. He received his board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1983 and wrote a book on memory, The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy to Keep Your Brain Young. And he swears by one simple three-step technique for memory retention.

Below, Dr. shares. Small’s favorite memory retention habit and actionable tips for implementing them in your daily life.

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The #1 best habit to improve your memory

Memory retention tips are a dime a dozen, but Dr. Small summarizes them in three clear words, which is useful when you’re trying to remember things. “The multiple methods that compensate for age-related memory loss can be summed up in three words, and I swear by their effectiveness: watch, click and connect‘, says Dr. Small.

This is what he means.

  • Look. Consider this word a gentle reminder to focus your attention. “The biggest reason people forget is that they get distracted and never learn the information,” says Dr. Small.

  • Snap. No, not with your fingers. “Snap reminds us to take a mental snapshot of what we want to remember later,” says Dr. Small. “This allows us to tap into the brain’s natural ability to remember visual information.”

  • Connect. The final step builds on the previous two. “Connect is a way to connect those mental snapshots together so that they have personal meaning,” says Dr. Small. “If we can make something meaningful, it will be memorable.”

Related: The One Smart Trick to Help You Always Remember the Names of Everyone You Meet

How to make Look-Snap-Connect work for you

A three-step memory retention habit sounds great in theory – simple, even. Yet applying it can be a challenge. To help, Dr. Small provides a concrete example that relates to situations that people say make them most uncomfortable because of their memory problems.

“It is easy to apply this technique to common memory complaints, such as remembering names and faces,” says Dr. Small.

Understandably, you might feel confused if you have trouble remembering the name of someone you’ve met before, especially if you’ve interacted several times. While it’s nothing to be ashamed of, you might feel better if you apply the look-snap-connect framework to help you remember people’s names. Here’s how.

“If you meet Harry and he has big, bushy hair, focus on his hairstyle so that it’s easier to remember his name later,” says Dr. Small. “If Lisa has a Mona Lisa smile, put that image in your mind, and the next time you see her, address her by name.”

Dr. Small swears by this practice, but he warns people that it’s not 100% guaranteed that someone’s name will be correct in future conversations. “The next time you meet, you call her Mona, tell her about your memory method, and you will have an unforgettable laugh together,” he says.

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4 more top tips to boost your memory

1. Exercise

Getting active has more benefits than your physical health. It can also improve your brain health.

“Regular cardiovascular conditioning improves cerebral circulation so that the heart can pump oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells, making them healthier and more efficient,” says Dr. Small. “Exercise also produces endorphins that improve mood and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which speeds up neuronal communication.”

There’s no need to adopt a hard-or-go-home mentality if exercise isn’t your favorite activity. A recent study among people aged 40 to 79, published in JAMA Neurology, found that taking just 3,800 daily steps can reduce the risk of mental decline, especially if it’s a brisk walk. Most participants could do this within 30 minutes of each other (and it didn’t have to be done all at once. People could break the walk into smaller steps).

“You don’t have to become a triathlete to reap the benefits of exercise,” says Dr. Small.

2. Healthy food

The food you eat nourishes the brain. “When we consume fish and nuts rich in omega-3 fats, we reduce brain-damaging inflammation,” explains Dr. Small out. “Antioxidant fruits and vegetables protect brain neurons from the wear and tear of oxidative stress, and avoiding processed foods and refined sugars lowers the risk of diabetes, a risk factor for cognitive decline.”

If it sounds like Dr. Small describes something that sounds like the Mediterranean diet, that’s because he is. A 2023 study found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of dementia than those who did not.

3. Mental stimulation

We talked about physical activity. However, mental stimulation is also crucial to keep the brain in top shape.

“Reading books, playing games, having stimulating conversations, doing crossword puzzles, or any activity that challenges our minds will keep our neural circuits healthy and strong,” says Dr. Small.

Dr. Small emphasizes that mental stimulation, like exercise, is not for everyone.

“The key is to exercise but not tax the brain, so find classes or other mental activities that are fun and engaging for you,” says Dr. Small. “If the task is too difficult, it will be frustrating and you will quickly give up. If it is too easy, it will become routine and you will not succeed in building brain muscle.”

A study published on JAMA Open Network in 2023 showed that people who engaged in fun activities such as crossword puzzles were less likely to develop dementia.

4. Manage stress

In addition to keeping your mind occupied, try to ensure that your mental health is the best it can be. “Stress is the enemy of memory,” says Dr. Small. “It distracts us and leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which can be harmful to the brain’s hippocampus, an important region that consolidates memories.”

Research has shown that chronic stress increases the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Are you stressed just thinking about it? “Meditation and other relaxation exercises have been shown to not only improve mood, but also increase memory,” says Dr. Small.

Therapists can also help you develop coping skills to reduce your stress levels.

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  • When should you talk to your doctor about memory loss? CDC.

  • Dr. Gary Small, MD, chairman of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center

  • What is Alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimers.gov.

  • Association of daily step count and intensity with incident dementia in 78,430 adults in Great Britain. JAMA Neurology.

  • Following a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of dementia, independent of genetic predisposition: findings from the UK Biobank prospective cohort study. BMC medicine.

  • Lifestyle enrichment in later life and its association with dementia risk. JAMA Open Network

  • Stress, depression and risk of dementia – a cohort study among the total population aged 18 to 65 in the Stockholm region. Alzheimer’s research and therapy.

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