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Harvard Health Publications -- Harvard Medical School HEALTHbeat
May 10, 2006

Dear HEALTHbeat subscriber,

Healthful habits help protect memory, but the aging brain may need an extra tweak or two to stay sharp. This issue of HEALTHbeat offers you 10 ways you can improve your memory. Also, Dr. Michael Miller, editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, describes the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion.

Best wishes,
The Editors
The editors of Harvard Health Publications
Harvard Medical School

In This Issue
1 10 research-proven tips for a better memory
2 Notable from Harvard Medical School:
* Living Better, Living
* Thyroid Disease:
   hypothyroidism and
3 Question and Answer with Michael C. Miller, M.D.:
What is the amygdala?

From Harvard Medical School
Improving Memory: Understanding and preventing age-related memory moss

If you’re like most people, you may worry that your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be — that it’s becoming more challenging to learn new things, remember something you just heard, or recall facts. However, memory loss is not an inevitable part of aging. Improving Memory: understanding and preventing age-related memory loss is a practical guide to the causes of memory loss and the steps you can take to improve your ability to learn and remember for a lifetime.

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1\ 10 research-proven tips for a better memory

Normal age-related changes in the brain can slow some cognitive processes, making it a bit harder to learn new things quickly or to ward off distractions. The good news is that, thanks to decades of research, most of us can sharpen our minds with proven, do-it-yourself strategies. Here are some ways to boost your ability to remember as you age.

1. Believe in yourself.

Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory, and better if exposed to messages about memory preservation into old age.

2. Economize your brain use.

Take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. Designate a place at home for your glasses, keys, and other items you use frequently.

3. Organize your thoughts.

New information that’s broken into smaller chunks, such as the hyphenated sections of a phone or social security number, is easier to remember than a single long list, such as financial account numbers or the name of everyone in a classroom.

4. Use all your senses.

The more senses you use when you learn something, the more of your brain will be involved in retaining the memory. For example, odors are famous for conjuring memories from the distant past, especially those with strong emotional content, such as visits to a cookie-baking grandparent.

5. Expand your brain.

Widen the brain regions involved in learning by reading aloud, drawing a picture, or writing down the information you want to learn (even if you never look back at your notes). Just forming a visual image of something makes it easier to remember and understand; it forces you to make the information more precise.

6. Repeat after me.

When you want to remember something you have just heard or thought about, repeat it out loud. For example, if you’ve just been told someone’s name, use it when you speak with him or her: “So John, where did you meet Camille?”

7. Space it out.

Instead of repeating something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few hours, then every day. Spacing out periods of study is particularly valuable when you are trying to master complicated information.

8. Make a mnemonic.

Mnemonic devices are creative ways to remember lists. They can take the form of acronyms — such as the classic “Every good boy does fine,” to remember the musical notes E, G, B, D, and F on the lines of the treble clef. For older learners, a particularly helpful system is a story mnemonic — that is, a brief narrative in which each item cues you to remember the next one.

9. Challenge yourself.

Engaging in activities that require you to concentrate and tax your memory will help you maintain skills as you age. Discuss books, do crossword puzzles, try new recipes, travel, and undertake projects or hobbies that require skills you aren’t familiar or comfortable with.

10. Take a course.

Memory-improvement courses are becoming more common. Choose one run by health professionals or experts in psychology or cognitive rehabilitation. Stay away from courses that center on computer or concentration games, which generally won’t help you with real-life memory problems. Select a course that focuses on practical ways to manage everyday challenges.

For more information on the many things you can do to protect and improve your memory, order our special health report, Improving Memory: understanding and preventing age-related memory loss, available at

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2\ Notable from Harvard Medical School
** Living Better, Living Longer: The secrets of healthy aging

Simple lifestyle choices have an enormous impact on your longevity and quality of life. Changes that were once labeled milestones for growing older — such as high blood pressure, fragile bones, and significant memory loss — are no longer considered inevitable. Drawing on well-regarded studies and expertise from Harvard Medical School and other sources, this report sets forth medical advances and advice designed to help you live better as well as longer.

** Thyroid Disease: Understanding hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism

Could you have thyroid disease and not realize it? Thyroid disease causes a variety of puzzling symptoms that many people mistake for signs of another disease or normal aging. But more than 12 million Americans have thyroid disease, many of whom don’t realize it. This report explains, in easy-to-understand language, how to recognize the symptoms and risk factors for thyroid disease and when to ask your doctor for a thyroid evaluation. If you have been diagnosed with thyroid disease, use this report as a guide to your condition. It explains some misconceptions, gives you the latest information on treatments, and provides insights about controversial topics such as whether mild thyroid disease ought to be treated and whether alternative therapies are right for you.

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3\ Q&A: What is the amygdala?

Q: What is the amygdala, and what does it do?

A: The amygdala (ah-MIG-duh-la) is the linchpin of human emotion. A deep structure of the brain, the vital responsibility of the amygdala is to receive information from the environment, evaluate its emotional significance, and organize a fitting response.

It is well situated for this work. From the hypothalamus, it receives information about the body’s reactions to the environment (for example, heart rate, blood pressure, digestive processes). It responds to the brain’s conscious evaluation of noteworthy events by communicating with the cerebral cortex. The amygdala coordinates these complementary viewpoints, integrating conscious experience with physical sensations that are not under conscious control. And through its connections to the hippocampus, a center of memory consolidation, the amygdala plays a role in registering emotional memories.

Because virtually all brain circuits governing emotion are connected to the amygdala, neuroscientists have studied it closely. With functional and structural (three-dimensional) magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography, they can watch the amygdala and related structures in action under controlled conditions.

Here are some examples of what they’ve found: Amygdala activity is greater when subjects view pictures with emotional as opposed to neutral content, and they remember those emotionally charged pictures better. The amygdala may be smaller and less active than average in people with schizophrenia (who have trouble “reading” emotions). People with social anxiety show more amygdala activity than others when they look at pictures of angry faces. People with genetically determined irregularities in the transport of the chemical messenger serotonin, who are thought to be more vulnerable to depression, also have hyperactive amygdalae.

Researchers can also learn about the amygdala when it is absent. Experimental animals whose amygdalae have been removed are unusually tame. This observation confirms what we know from other experiments — that the amygdala is especially devoted to registering and managing fear. One of its main functions is to mobilize us in an emergency, sometimes before we are fully conscious of the threat.

The activity of the amygdala may also explain how fear becomes contagious. Sometimes survival depends on our recognizing that others are afraid, and that may be impossible without a functioning amygdala. In a 2005 report in the journal Nature, researchers discuss the case of a woman with severe amygdala damage from a chronic illness. She does not recognize fear in facial expressions because she is not attentive to cues from the eyes. The researchers were able to help her recognize a fearful expression by directing her to look at eyes, but even with training she could not do it spontaneously. Apparently the amygdala doesn’t just passively absorb information but prompts the visual system to search for the information and make it available for evaluation.

The dark side may not be the amygdala’s only concern. Studies in which brain scans were taken while viewers watched “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” have explored how the amygdala reacts to humor. Other research has shown how it may help us recognize scary music in a movie soundtrack. It would be lovely to learn that the amygdala not only helps keep us safe but makes life more interesting and enjoyable.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., editor in chief, Harvard Mental Health Newsletter available at

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Harvard Medical School publishes authoritative special health reports on a wide range of topics. Each report delivers practical information on diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of major health concerns in clear, easy-to-understand language. For more information on a specific topic, click the appropriate link below:

Alzheimer’s, Arthritis, Bladder, Cholesterol, Depression, Diabetes, Digestion, Energy, Exercise, Eye Disease, Headache, Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Memory, Menopause, Prostate, Sexuality, Sleep, Stroke, Vitamins

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Harvard Medical School offers special reports on over 50 health topics. Visit our Web site at to find reports of interest to you and your family.

Copyright 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
To view our archive of past HEALTHbeat e-newsletters click here.
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