Illustration: Lisa Greene
Ready for a pop quiz? Before reading any further, focus on the words to the left for one minute, then read (or reread) another article. When you're done, write down as many of the words as you can remember and return to this page to count up your total.
Find out what your score means...
How'd you do? Recalling five or more of the words means your baseline short-term memory is in good shape. But if you came up with fewer, don't panic. maybe you were distracted by a text message, or maybe something else on the page caught your attention while you were reading the list (research shows that simply being unfocused can make it nearly impossible to add new information to your memory bank). Or maybe you just need to incorporate some brain training, which can activate and strengthen neural connections over time, allowing you to call up stored information faster.
Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center, who designed our test and uses a similar one to help diagnose memory problems in his patients, believes that certain behavioral techniques can help you stay sharper, longer. If you're perpetually misplacing your keys and forgetting to pick up milk at the grocery store, use these tactics to boost your memory today—and help prevent its decline down the road.
Connect with Friends
After tracking the social behaviors of more than 700 people over 15 years, Australian researchers found that those who maintained more close friendships scored better on memory tests (recalling symbols, pictures, and words). Being in regular contact with friends can keep you on your toes by engaging the problem-solving regions of your brain (as when you debate your latest book club pick or help a friend through a crisis). "It's important to be socially connected from a young age so that the lifestyle patterns you develop become ingrained," says Peter Snyder, PhD, chief research officer of the Lifespan Hospital System in Rhode Island. "We've found that when people prioritize these relationships, they also protect their brain function."
Choose Stimulating New Hobbies
As long as it interests and challenges you, the particular pastime doesn't matter—it could be reading books in a genre you usually avoid, learning to play an instrument, or taking a new exercise class. A study by researchers at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons found that people with more than six intellectual, physical, or social leisure activities were 38 percent less likely to develop dementia—and with each additional hobby, their risk decreased by another 8 percent. The fresh neural connections established as you take in new information can help build up what's called cognitive reserve—the brain's ability to resist memory loss. And the sooner you find new passions, the better: A 2012 study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people who performed more mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives had lower levels of a certain destructive protein associated with Alzheimer's.
Go to Your Happy Place
Many studies have shown that depression is linked to memory problems, but keeping your brain sharp requires more than just staving off the blues—you need to actively practice positivity. A 2013 study in the journal Cognition and Emotion found that older adults who experienced positive emotions improved their memory by roughly 19 percent. "Positive moods are thought to trigger the release of the chemical dopamine in brain regions involved in memory, which may help improve recall," says study coauthor Ellen Peters, PhD, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. If you want to reap the same benefits, try practicing meditation—one study found that the proven stress buster can help increase dopamine levels.
Brush Up on Your High School Spanish, or French, or German
A study from the Rotman Research Institute found that bilingual Alzheimer's patients began experiencing symptoms of the disease five years later than patients who spoke only one language. "When you think in two languages, your brain cells may be working twice as hard," explains Small. "And the more often you fire up those neurons, the stronger they get." But it's use it or lose it: "If these connections aren't reinforced regularly—as in the case of a neglected foreign language you learned decades ago—they fade," says Neal Barnard, MD, an adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Use Your Imagination
Picturing yourself completing a task can help ensure that you remember to get it done. Researchers at the University of Arizona recently conducted a study in which participants were asked to memorize lists of words describing personality traits; having subjects imagine themselves acting out the traits proved the most effective technique for boosting their ability to immediately recall the words. The findings suggest that this technique could work for everyday memory tasks, from remembering to return shoes at the mall (picture yourself at the cash register) to remembering to stop by the dry cleaner's on your way home from work (imagine walking out with your clothes).
Challenge Yourself at Work
Whether you do it by changing careers or simply taking on more responsibilities at the job you have, finding something that pushes you out of your comfort zone can help protect against memory-deteriorating diseases. One study published in Neurology
reviewed the work histories of people with and without Alzheimer's and found that those who developed the disease had fewer mentally taxing assignments. Researchers believe that the mental stimulation of more demanding jobs can help shore up cognitive reserves and stave off dementia. Says Snyder, "Routinely challenging yourself with projects that require you to multitask and solve problems fortifies systems in the brain that are important for memory."
Help Researchers Learn More
About Memory Loss
One of the best things you can do to help scientists find a cure for Alzheimer's disease is to join the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative
, a new registry where you can volunteer to participate in medical surveys and clinical trials. You don't have to suffer from dementia to help—the more people (both healthy and sick) who join, the more researchers can learn about what's going on in the human brain. Sign up at Registry.EndAlzNow.org
Next: Take the brain fitness quiz