A Fun Way to Keep Your Memory Sharp

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

Tom Jacobs
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJan 27, 2021

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Photo: Lauren Mulligan/Getty Images

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…

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Tom Jacobs
Elemental

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.