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Exercise your brain to retain memory

I'm growing increasingly concerned about my memory. In recent years I've been surprised at how I completely forget things that have happened. They are minor things like meeting someone in the supermarket, or the detail of a conversation, but it's been a problem because it puts me at a deficit when I meet these people again.

Many people simply pick up their conversation with me where, I suppose, they left off the last time I spoke with them. I nod my head a lot but inside am scrambling to recall our previous discourse. Sometimes it comes back to me, but most times it doesn't so I smile some more, respond to what I'm being told and try to get out of the conversation quickly.

I recently confided to a work colleague that I feared I was in the early stages of Alzheimer's but was reassured that my memory lapses are just a normal part of ageing.

Neurologists explain that in much the same way that physical exercise is necessary to achieve and maintain good muscle strength and tone, exercising the memory is needed to keep the brain alert and sharp. It's the ‘use it or lose it' scenario.

Biologically, memory is achieved when neural pathways are made in the brain. Neural pathways happen when a task has been repeated to the point where it is familiar. So I can ride my bike without consciously thinking through every manoeuvre, because I ridden so much my brain has developed a neural pathway that allows me to go into a type of ‘automatic' mode once I sit on the bike.

Forming neural pathways are important and necessary for us to be able to enjoy life. It's the reason we are able to process information quickly and don't have to relearn everything we do every day.

By adulthood we've developed millions of these pathways. Many of us can get through each day using them and not much else in terms of brainpower. Memory declines when we stop actively thinking and problem solving. Our brains need to be stimulated in order to continue to develop and also, and perhaps even more importantly, to maintain good functioning, including memory.

The more we work our brains the better we'll be able to process and retain information. And how to we give our brains a workout? The best brain exercises break our normal routines and challenge us to develop new neural pathways.

Doing what you're good at or activities you know, don't provide the stimulation your brain needs to develop. Instead try something new, playing a new instrument or sporting activity are good examples. Activities that require coordination between different senses are especially good — like the hand-eye coordination needed in knitting, or the taste and smell senses needed in wine tasting.

Brain exercising activities don't have to be at the mensa level but they should contain all or some of the following three aspects:

1. Challenging — the experience should be something that causes you to have to think about what you are doing and not simply do ‘automatically'.

2. Novel — the experience or activity should be something new, something unfamiliar that you've not done before.

3. Enjoyable — Doing things that make us feel good about ourselves is extremely important for our mental health. Any activity we choose should be something we will find fun or appealing. I'm awful at figures so although Suduko would probably be a good way to stimulate my brain, I wouldn't do it because it's unlikely I'd find it enjoyable.

Brain exercise: The key to preserving powers of memory

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Published August 13, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated August 12, 2013 at 2:23 pm)

Exercise your brain to retain memory

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