Is your memory not what it used to be? Here's what's causing you to be forgetful, along with easy ways to boost your brain power.

By Richard Laliberte

Did You Forget...

Quick: Who invented the cotton gin? When was your car inspected last? What did you eat for breakfast this morning? If you've drawn a blank on one or all of these questions, you know how unnerving it is when thoughts and information vanish from your mind. "We rely on memory for everything we do, from coming up with creative ideas to communicating effectively," says Tony Dottino, founder of the annual USA National Memory Championship, a mental matchup where competitors memorize decks of cards, unfamiliar poems, and long sequences of names and numbers.

And while it's natural to fear that your forgetfulness is a sign of something serious, like early-onset dementia or Alzheimer's disease, experts say you shouldn't sweat it. "Memory lapses are normal—not because there's a problem, but because our lives are busy and difficult, and there's simply too much to remember," says Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., founder of the Memory Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore, and author of Intelligent Memory: A Prescription for Improving Your Memory (Penguin).

In fact, you probably have more memory power than you think. And if your mind isn't as sharp as you'd like, there are some healthy habits and mental strategies that can help clear the brain fog and recharge your recall beyond what you thought possible.

The Facts on Forgetting

The first step in improving your memory is gaining an understanding of how the mind works. It isn't like a tape recorder that perfectly preserves every name, number, or appointment. Instead, memory is like a sound studio's mixing board, combining elements so they relate and harmonize—and eliminating what's not needed. "Your mind is designed to forget," says Dr. Gordon. "Imagine if you remembered every place you ever parked your car. Your brain would be so cluttered that you'd have trouble conjuring things that were more important." This might explain studies that show that you may lose more than half of what enters your head within an hour and 80% within a month.

New information first goes into "working memory," where it's held for a short time while you sort your thoughts. "It's like a scratch pad for your brain," says Cynthia Green, Ph.D., author of Total Memory Workout: 8 Easy Steps to Maximum Memory Fitness (Bantam). "Some of what you note, you'll save, but you'll throw a lot of it away." Information that's reinforced—possibly because it's important to you or linked to an emotion—moves into long-term memory, where it could stick for the rest of your life.

Of course, shuffling memories to long-term storage is more difficult if you are sleep-deprived, distracted, or continually flooded with new material. Hormonal changes can also wreak some havoc: Studies have linked low estrogen levels (say, during your period or when you're in perimenopause) to forgetfulness and fuzzy thinking. Plus, starting in your 20s, brain activity begins to slow, making you less able to focus on new information or process it quickly. "Slowing isn't the same thing as having less ability," says Dr. Gordon. "Most people maintain accuracy and the ability to learn for a long time."

He adds that some forms of memory actually get better with age. Memory loss is usually limited to an area of the brain that handles material tied to specific dates or times—like your parents' anniversary or the last time you changed your water filter. But "skill memory," or your ability to do familiar tasks, and "intelligent memory," which relates to judgment and social skills, improves over time.

5 Worst Memory Problems

Different types of memory issues call for different techniques, says Scott Hagwood, a four-time winner of the USA National Memory Championship and author of Memory Power (Free Press). These are his tips for downloading the most reluctant information from your mental files.

  1. Names. The mind remembers visuals best, so put new names to paper. Read what you've written again before bed and it will stick in your mind better. Also, say the name aloud, which gives the brain another route to recall.
  2. Directions. If you're like most people, you're able to recall only the first two steps in a set of directions. To remember more, try the Roman room method: Picture your bedroom, and link movements through the room to those that will take you to your destination. "Turn left and go two lights," for example, might translate to pivoting left at your sock drawer and then pulling out two socks.
  3. Where you put your keys. Train yourself to put glasses and keys in the same spot every time. It's the only way to consistently remember because you always have more important things on your mind when you set them down.
  4. Where you parked. As you walk away, turn around and look at the location of the car to lock a visual image of the environment into your mind.
  5. Why you're here. You just came upstairs—but why? Think back to where you started and try to recall what was on your mind at that time. Better yet, carry something in your hand that reminds you of your mission, such as a pencil or hanger.

Memory-Improving Tips

Information overload isn't the only thing that jams memory circuits. "We now have a lot of research showing that lifestyle affects brain function, as well as the risk of developing Alzheimer's," says Elizabeth Edgerly, Ph.D., chief program officer at the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California. Taking control of the following factors could significantly improve your memory.

  • Do a health check. Hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking, and being overweight are bad for the blood vessels that feed the brain. In a recent study, people who had a procedure that involved widening a major artery in their brain experienced an increase in blood flow that improved memory and thinking. An underactive thyroid gland can also impair memory by producing too little thyroid hormone, which helps regulate brain function. Depression caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals makes it more difficult for nerve cells involved with memory to communicate, says Dr. Gordon. Some gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and antianxiety medications can dim your memory as well, says Edgerly.
  • Stave off stress. Anyone who's blanked out during a speech knows that stress can rob your memory banks. Now researchers at Yale Medical School know why: Stress activates an enzyme called protein kinase C, which interferes with the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking. But stress also challenges your ability to form new memories, because your distracted mind has more trouble consolidating new information. One de-stressing strategy: writing in a journal, which tends to be calming and helps you process and remember your experiences.
  • Get physical. A study of more than 18,000 women found that those who walked regularly stayed three years younger mentally than nonwalkers. In other research middle-aged adults who did 20 to 30 minutes of daily aerobic activity reduced their risk of Alzheimer's disease by 60%. Tests in animals show that being physical makes nerve cells multiply faster, strengthens their connections, and protects them from damage.
  • Stimulate your brain. People who challenge their mind with regular activities like sudoku, crossword puzzles, and word games tend to have better memory retention than those who do less stimulating things like watching TV. A recent review of 22 studies published in Psychological Medicine found that mental activity at all stages of life cuts the risk of dementia nearly in half. The best stimulation, according to a Swedish study, comes from combining a mental challenge with physical activity in a social setting—such as dancing or playing an instrument in a band.

Food for Thought

A poor diet may hurt your memory, says Cynthia Green, Ph.D., of Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York. Be sure to eat some of these:

  • Fortified grains: Getting too little folic acid, a B vitamin found in cereals and breads, has been linked with a reduction in nerve cells in the part of the brain where age-related memory loss occurs first.
  • Blueberries: Their ability to improve memory and other mental functions in animals may be due to the high antioxidant content, which can protect brain cells from damage.
  • Green leafy vegetables: In a Harvard study, women who ate more antioxidant-rich vegetables, like spinach and chicory, did better on mental tests than women who ate less.
  • Citrus fruits: Consuming vitamin C (in foods such as oranges and grapefruits) may prevent dementia. Also consider taking in supplemental doses of 500mg.
  • Nuts: Vitamin E, an antioxidant found in almonds and walnuts, may also reduce the risk of developing dementia. In one study, supplements of 400 IU were found to be beneficial.
  • Fish: People who eat fish with omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon) at least once a week have a 60% lower risk of Alzheimer's disease.