Harvard Women's Health Watch

Where did I put that? Tips to improve your memory

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When you meet someone for the first time, say his or her name aloud to help you remember it.

Spend less time each day wondering and searching by incorporating these simple techniques into your routine.

Have you ever engaged in a frantic search for your car keys because you forgot where you left them, or missed an important appointment because it slipped your mind? These sorts of memory lapses are more common as we get older, both because we learn new information more slowly and we have more trouble recalling it.

Improving memory starts with some simple lifestyle strategies—including eating right. A study published in the June 2014 Journal of Nutrition found that women who eat foods with plenty of healthful nutrients have better attention and memory than those with poorer diets. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. The other essential element to sharper memory is regular aerobic exercise—the kind that makes you sweat and gets your heart pumping. Working out appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

While you're fine-tuning your diet and workout routine, here are a few tricks you can try to jog your recall.

Get organized

One way to get around memory slips is to have an appointed place for everything you need, from personal items to important documents. Here are a few ideas:

  • Essentials table or bin. Keep all your everyday belongings—glasses, keys, purse—in one easy-to-find place so you'll never have to hunt for them.

  • List organizer. Have one central place to jot down important appointments, to-dos, and notes. If you're tech savvy, that can be a smartphone app. Or, you can use an old-fashioned paper organizer, calendar, or notebook. You can even put up an erasable board in your kitchen to write down items.

  • Address book. Jot down the names, addresses, and phone numbers you need—including those of family, friends, your doctors, and the companies with which you do business (bank, dry cleaner, mechanic, etc.). Keep them together in a paper book or use the contacts tool on your computer or phone, and update them as needed.

  • File folder. Just as you assign a table or bin for your belongings, have a set place to put important paperwork, including your medical records and insurance documents. You can use a drawer in a file cabinet or an expanding file folder.

Memory joggers

You know when a name or date is right at the tip of your tongue, but you just can't remember it? Here are a few strategies to help you store—and retrieve—new information.

  • Say it aloud. The act of repeating a name or word will help you store it away for later. When you meet someone for the first time, say, "Great to meet you, Sue!" When someone gives you directions, repeat them back, step by step. And when you put your keys away, say out loud, "I put my keys on the hall table." After you have an important conversation—for example, with your doctor—on the ride home recite out loud what was said during the appointment.

  • Make associations. Mentally connect an unfamiliar word with one you're better acquainted with. For example, if you meet someone named April, think of her as the month of April—trees in full spring bloom. That image will be easier to recall the next time you see her.

  • Remind yourself. Write notes and leave them where you need them—for example, post a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind you to take your medicine each morning. You can also use the alarm on your cellphone, or have a friend call you.

  • Break down tasks. If you know that you won't be able to remember an entire sequence of steps needed to complete a task, break down that task into smaller chunks and tackle one at a time. Breaking down large sections of text or numbers you need to memorize into smaller bits (memorizing the first three numbers of a phone number, then the next three, then the last four) also aids in recall.

Finally, don't underestimate the power of social interaction. Research finds that staying connected to friends and relatives provides mental stimulation, which translates into better memory.

To learn other ways of preserving memory, read the Harvard Special Health Report, Improving Memory. To order, call 877-649-9457 (toll-free) or go online to www.health.harvard.edu/IM.