TIME health

12 Unexpected Things That Mess With Your Memory

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You regularly ransack the house to find your keys. You suddenly can’t recall the name of your kid’s teacher. You made your six-month dentist appointment three months late. Sound familiar? Fear not: most forgetfulness isn’t anything serious, says Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand Brain Center in Luterville, MD and co-author of The Memory Cure. Lack of sleep, certain medications, and even stress can impact your memory. “Fortunately, your brain is malleable, meaning it changes and improves,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Memory can be boosted with simple powerful interventions.” Here are surprising things that impact your memory in both good and not-so-good ways.

A dysfunctional thyroid

When your thyroid’s out of whack, you may feel too hot, too cold, anxious, depressed—and your memory may also be lagging. “Although the thyroid doesn’t have a specific role in the brain, memory loss is the one thing a person notices when it stops functioning normally,” says Dr. Fotuhi. A butterfly-shaped gland that sits along the front of your windpipe, the thyroid reigns over almost all your body’s metabolic processes. “People with high or low thyroid levels—which are very common in women—may have difficulty with memory and concentration,” he says. Ask your doctor for a simple thyroid test to determine if it’s the culprit behind your memory problems.

Health.com: 19 Signs Your Thyroid Isn’t Working Right

Hot flashes

Every time hot flashes make you you feel like sticking your head in the freezer, you may also feel a fog rolling into your brain. “The more hot flashes a woman experiences during menopause, the worse her ability to remember names and stories,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “Fortunately, hot flashes don’t damage the brain in any way. Memory improves once the hot flashes subside.” Other menopause-related symptoms contribute to memory loss, including insomnia and sleep apnea, Dr. Fotuhi says.

Lack of sleep

Last night’s late party makes it less likely you’ll remember your new coworker’s name the next day. “While some part of the brain takes a siesta when we sleep, deeper areas involved with memory and emotional response become relatively more active,” says Allen Towfigh, MD, medical director of New York Neurology & Sleep Medicine. “Individuals with sleep deprivation and sleep disorders not only suffer from impaired memory but also daytime fatigue, impaired attention, and reduced reaction time.” The standard recommendation of eight hours of sleep a night doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. If you wake up fatigued and fall asleep unintentionally during the day, then you may need more sleep, says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: How to Fake a Good Night’s Sleep

Anxiety and depression

Worrying about an upcoming presentation in front of the CEO may also hinder your memory, several studies show. “We don’t understand the exact link, but strong evidence indicates depression, anxiety, and bipolar disease disrupts the neural circuitry involved in developing and retrieving memories,” says Dr. Towfigh. “The severity of the memory loss often mirrors the severity of the mood disorder—severe depression brings about equally severe memory loss.” Prolonged periods of everyday stress increase cortisol levels in the brain, which causes our brain cells to lose synapses (the bridges that connect our brain cells to one another), and make it more difficult to create and retrieve memories. The good news is when memory loss exists with a mood disorder (including anxiety and depression), the memory loss is usually at least partially reversible. “As the individual’s mood improves, often so does the memory loss,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Prescription drugs

Check your medicine cabinet: many common prescription drugs can make you feel forgetful. Anxiety disorder meds like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan (which are benzodiazepines) put a damper on the part of the brain that moves events from the short-term to the long-term memory. Tricyclic antidepressants have a similar effect. Heart medicines including statins and beta blockers have also been linked to memory issues, as have narcotic painkillers, incontinence drugs, sleep aids, and even antihistamines like Benadryl. Bottom line: Don’t stop taking your (potentially life-saving) medications, but talk to your doc if you believe any drug you’re on may be messing with your memory.

Smoking

If you’re still smoking, that may help explain memory lapses. “Smoking damages the brain by impairing its blood supply,” says Dr. Towfigh. Research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry gathered from data obtained from more than 7,000 men and women found a more rapid decline in brain function (which included memory along with vocabulary and other brain functions) with age than from those who never smoked. “Furthermore, cigarette smoking promotes the accumulation of abnormal proteins which impair the brain’s ability to process and relay information,” says Dr. Towfigh.

Health.com: 15 Ways Smoking Ruins Your Looks

A high-fat diet

Greasy burgers and French fries pack on pounds and are hard on your heart—and they may also cause memory issues. One study revealed that adolescent mice had poorer learning and memory skills after being fed a high-fat diet for eight weeks, while another study on middle-aged rats found that the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory) may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of high-fat diets.

More research is needed to determine for sure whether or not high-fat diets impact human memory, but here’s what we do know: Calorically dense diets promote type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, which can all do damage to our brains, says Dr. Towfigh. “This holds true earlier in life, too. Studies link childhood obesity with a reduced attention span and impaired concentration and focus.”

Stress

A sudden emergency can make it tough to recall something as simple as your home address. A rat study published in Neuron shows that stress hormones influence an area of the brain area that controls working memory. Researchers found that repeated stress reduced receptors in the part of the brain that’s connected to thought processes Although this study involved animals, the human brain works similarly, explains Dr. Towfigh. “Repeated or chronic stress can be harmful. Regular exposure to elevated glucocorticoids (a hormone released by the adrenal gland) also causes our brain cells to reduce receptors, making brain cells less capable of responding to neurochemical (brain chemicals) cues.” Finding ways to relieve stress may help: Practicing meditation does double duty by easing stress and helping improve memory, according to a study from the University of California, Santa Barbara. College students who completed eight 45-minute meditation sessions over two weeks increased their average GRE exam scores from 460 to 520 and showed improvement on tests of working memory.

Health.com: 13 Ways to Beat Stress in 15 Minutes or Less

Germs

A nasty cold sore does more than make you feel self-conscious—it may be messing with your memory, according to a 2013 study in Neurology. Researchers found that people who exposed to many germs, such as herpes simplex type 1 (the cold sore virus), over their lifetimes were more likely to have memory problems than those exposed to fewer germs. Among more than 1,600 study participants, those with a higher “infectious burden” had a 25% increase in the risk of a low score on a cognitive test. Although there is no vaccine for the cold sore virus, childhood vaccinations against other viruses could help prevent problems later in life, the researchers suggest. In addition, regular exercise may help too—doctors think repeated infections may damage blood vessels, since a high infectious burden is also linked to a greater risk of stroke and heart attack.

Green tea

Now for some good news: chemicals found in green tea may help improve your memory, according to a University of Basel study. “Several compounds, EGCG and L-theanine, in green tea increase neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for short-term memory and learning new things,” says Dr. Fotuhi. How much green tea has not yet been determined, says Dr. Fotuhi, who recommends combining green tea with other healthy habits such as exercise for greatest memory improvement benefits.

Exercise

Regular sweat sessions also help keep memories sharp. “Physical exercise improves mood and sleep and by doing so, it invariably improves cognition and memory,” says Dr. Towfigh. An animal study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, for example, showed daily exercise increased brain cell growth after 12 weeks of conditioned running. Dr. Fotuhi recommends 45 minutes of aerobic exercise four days a week for the best memory boost.

Health.com: 20 Tricks to Make Exercise an Everyday Habit

Vitamin B12 deficiency

Vegetarians and vegans are at a higher risk of being deficient in vitamin B12, which keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. That’s because B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods: shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy. In addition to fatigue, loss of appetite, constipation, and weight loss, a B12 deficiency can also lead to memory problems. If you feel your meatless diet may be affecting your memory, your doctor can give you a blood test that determines whether you should be taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Note: it’s not just veggies who are at risk for a B12 deficiency. Pregnant women, older adults, and anyone with pernicious anemia or gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease and Crohn’s disease may need supplementation.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s What Soda Does to Young Rats’ Brains

Soda is on the mind. A new small study in rats found that drinking sugary beverages may result in memory issues down the line.

University of Southern California researchers looked at adult and adolescent rats, and feed them sugary beverages (meant to mimic soda) for a month. After a month, the rats completed tasks that assessed their cognitive function and memory. The adult rats had no problems, but the adolescent rats who had been drinking sugary beverages had impaired memory and trouble learning.

The findings are being presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), and are preliminary. The researchers plan to explore whether the soda is causing inflammation in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the region of the brain involved in memory and learning.

Though the research has not been done in humans, it’s part of a growing body of work looking at the risks of soda.

TIME psychology

4 Easy Ways You Can Resolve Life’s Toughest Questions

How To Work More Efficiently

Use the Eisenhower Matrix.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

The US President Dwight D. Eisenhower supposedly once said: ‘The most urgent decisions are rarely the most important ones’. Eisenhower was considered a master of time management, i.e. he had the ability to do everything as and when it needed to be done. With the Eisenhower method, you will learn to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent.

Whatever the job that lands on your desk, begin by breaking it down according to the Eisenhower method (see model), and then decide how to proceed. We often focus too strongly on the ‘urgent and important’ field, on the things that have to be dealt with immediately. Ask yourself: When will I deal with the things that are important, but not urgent? When will I take the time to deal with important tasks before they become urgent? This is the field for strategic, long-term decisions.

 

How To Be Happy

Try the “Flow” model.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

After interviewing over a thousand people about what made them happy, (Csikszentmihalyi) found that all the responses had five things in common. Happiness, or ‘flow’, occurs when we are:

• intensely focused on an activity

• of our own choosing, that is

• neither under-challenging (boreout) nor over-challenging (burnout), that has

• a clear objective, and that receives

• immediate feedback.

Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people who are ‘in the flow’ not only feel a profound sense of satisfaction, they also lose track of time and forget themselves completely because they are so immersed in what they are doing. Musicians, athletes, actors, doctors and artists describe how they are happiest when they are absorbed in an often exhausting activity – totally contradicting the commonly held view that happiness has to do with relaxation.

 

How To Remember Everything You Have Ever Learned

Use the Supermemo model.

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

Imagine that you are learning Chinese. You have learned a word and memorised it. Without practice, over time it will become increasingly difficult to remember. The amount of time it takes for you to forget it completely can be calculated, and ideally you should be reminded of the word precisely when you are in the process of forgetting it. The more often you are reminded of the word, the longer you will remember it for. This learning programme is called SuperMemo and was developed by the Polish researcher Piotr Woźniak.

After learning something, you should ideally refresh your memory of it at the following intervals: one, ten, thirty and sixty days afterwards.

 

How To Deal With A Dilemma

Use “The Rubber Band Model.”

decision-book

Via The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking:

Is this a situation you are familiar with? A friend, colleague or client needs to make a decision that could irrevocably alter their future: for example to change career, move to another city or take early retirement. The arguments for and against are evenly balanced. How can you help them out of their dilemma?

Copy out the rubber band model, and ask the person to ask themselves: What is holding me? What is pulling me?

At first glance the method seems to be a simple variation of the conventional question ‘What are the pros and cons?’ The difference is that ‘What is holding me?’ and ‘What is pulling me?’ are positive questions and reflect a situation with two attractive alternatives.

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TIME

Sleep Helps You Remember Things If You’re a Mouse

That’s the technique that worked best for mice in an intriguing study on how sleep helps the brain to create and store memories

It’s hard to tell how much a mouse remembers, but by peering at the activity of nerve cells in animals’ brains while they sleep, researchers have found some clues. That’s how Wen-Biao Gan, a neuroscientist and physiologist at New York University, learned some interesting things about what happens when mice snooze.

By tagging nerves cells in their brains, Gan and his colleagues report in the journal Science that sleep is actually a very active time for the brain, in which connections between buzzing nerve cells are made in order to consolidate memories. The researchers had mice run on a rotating and accelerating rod, then allowed them to sleep. Some of the mice got to slumber undisturbed, while others were handled to keep them from getting quality sleep. The animals who slept undisturbed showed signs of new neural connections forming during just the first phases of sleep, known as non REM sleep.

“My feeling is that sleep is important to the process of forming long term memory,” says Gan. During REM, not only are the same nerve connections that the mice made while they ran reactivated, but new connections were also made. When he blocked the reactivation of nerves, no new connections were made, suggesting that learning, or making long term memories, is a two part process in which sleep plays an important role.

How applicable are these findings to helping people? Hopefully some of same principles apply, says Gan, although more studies will be needed to confirm that. So don’t underestimate how much work your brain is doing while you catch some z’s. Most of what you remember could be thanks to getting a good night’s sleep.

TIME psychology

How to Develop a Photographic Memory: 4 Easy Steps

Could you memorize the order of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds?

(Hat tip to Josh.)

Don’t feel bad; I can’t remember what I ate for lunch yesterday.

In fact, one-third of British people under 30 can’t remember their home phone number.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

According to a survey conducted in 2007 by a neuropsychologist at Trinity College Dublin, fully a third of Brits under the age of thirty can’t remember even their own home land line number without pulling it up on their handsets. The same survey found that 30 percent of adults can’t remember the birthdays of more than three immediate family members.

The thing is, while some people are blessed with a naturally impressive memory, the true memory experts are made, not born.

How do you dramatically improve your memory? C’mon, we’re gonna build a palace.

The Memory Palace

The idea dates back to the fifth century B.C. and was first synthesized in Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium.

So what does a palace have to do with remembering your shopping list?

Your memory is not just a hard drive that stores everything equally well. It’s particularly good at certain things and terrible at others.

Work with it, you’ll be impressed. Work against it and you’ll be wandering the supermarket aisles for that one thing that’s on the tip of your tongue…

Our ancestors didn’t need to remember long lists, they needed to remember routes to resources.

Memory champion Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, penned a piece for the New York Times explaining:

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to recall phone numbers or word-for-word instructions from their bosses or the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum or (because they lived in relatively small, stable groups) the names of dozens of strangers at a cocktail party. What they did need to remember was where to find food and resources and the route home and which plants were edible and which were poisonous. Those are the sorts of vital memory skills that they depended on, which probably helps explain why we are comparatively good at remembering visually and spatially.

While we’re terrible about remembering lists of random numbers, the human mind is naturally excellent at remembering places.

What memory experts do is work with the brain’s natural setup to turn hard-to-remember things and fit them into a format that is easy to remember:

The point of the memory techniques described in “Rhetorica ad Herennium.” is to take the kinds of memories our brains aren’t that good at holding onto and transform them into the kinds of memories our brains were built for.

So what do you need to know about the fundamentals of memory to get cooking?

  • We’re really good at remembering layouts, routes and spatial information.
  • Our minds are visual.
  • We remember things that stand out; things that are absurd, funny, sexual or offensive.

Here’s how you combine these principles to remember anything:

1) Build Your Palace

It doesn’t need to be very royal. Basically it can be any building you know the layout of. A good starter palace is your childhood home.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

The crucial thing was to choose a memory palace with which I was intimately familiar. “For your first memory palace, I’d like you to use the house you grew up in, since that’s a space you’re likely to know very well,” Ed said.

2) Construct The Images

The things you want to remember (like the items on a grocery list) need to each be associated with an image you won’t forget.

What type of images do we not forget? Extreme things that stand out. Go for crazy, lewd or funny.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

The Ad Herennium advises readers at length about creating the images for one’s memory palace: the funnier, lewder, and more bizarre, the better. “When we see in everyday life things that are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them, because the mind is not being stirred by anything novel or marvelous… Evolution has programmed our brains to find two things particularly interesting, and therefore memorable: jokes and sex—and especially, it seems, jokes about sex.

3) Place the Images In The Palace

So how do you remember your shopping list?

Think about how you would normally walk through your childhood home and “place” the memorable images in the order you need to remember them along that route.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

“We’re going to array the items of my to-do list one by one along a route that will snake around your childhood home. When it comes time to recall the list, all you will need to do is retrace the steps we’re about to take in your imagination…”

So, for example:

  • You go in through the front door and standing there is a cow on fire (symbolizing the burgers you need to buy at the store).
  • You go up the stairs but they’re slick with the fiery cow’s dripping blood (you need to buy ketchup too.)
  • At the end of the upstairs hall is an enormous human butt (you need to buy hamburger buns.)

Did hearing any of these images make you say “gross” or “disgusting”? GOOD. That means they’re working.

4) Go For A Walk To Recall

Time to remember? Just take a stroll through your palace, visiting each crazy image.

You can use this system for most any memory activity. Cicero used it for speeches, connecting the points he wanted to make as items in his palace.

Via Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything:

Cicero agreed that the best way to memorize a speech is point by point, not word by word, by employing memoria rerum. In his De Oratore, he suggests that an orator delivering a speech should make one image for each major topic he wants to cover, and place each of those images at a locus. Indeed, the word “topic” comes from the Greek word topos, or place. (The phrase “in the first place” is a vestige from the art of memory.)

Yes, your mind is going to be full of dinosaurs, naked people and a level of absurdity that would make Salvador Dali cringe.

Who knew developing your memory could be so much fun?

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tr

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