Keeping our brains active helps memory recall

We all know that a healthy lifestyle – eating properly and being active – is key to helping us live better and longer lives.

Yet this did not stop hundreds of men and women – looking to learn more about their brains and discover methods to ward off memory loss – from signing up for the Brainy Boomers lecture series that took place last October.

The program was initiated by the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging, as a joint project with the Alzheimer Society of Montreal, with assistance from the Jewish General Hospital and l’Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal.

The three-part series stressed taking charge of our brains – a complex and intriguing organ that controls all of our physical and mental functions, much like a computer — and opened with a session on Memory and Aging. Dr. Loraine Mazzella-Maiolo talked about how the brain functions, what happens to memory when there is brain damage, and noted that “old is not defined by age but by decreased function/dependence on others.”

She explained that although there is aging or shrinking of the brain which may cause a decrease in memory in a relatively normal person, there are ways to help ourselves retain things by “planning, organizing and writing things down.”

Mazzella-Maiolo said it is important to continue to be active, interact with others, have social engagements and attend functions, take courses, and learn something new like a language, dancing, or how to use the computer.

The second lecture, Nutrition for a Healthy Brain with Risa Sigal, clinical dietician, reviewed the importance of following Canada’s Food Guide. Sigal reviewed the dietary recommended intakes (amount of nutrients and calories) we each require for good health and the prevention of chronic disease.

Our daily diets should include at least one dark green and one orange vegetable or fruit and important nutrients such as iron, potassium, antioxidants, vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin A, fibre and grain products lower in fat, sugar and salt, as well as an adequate intake of calcium through milk, cheeses and yogurt.

Dr. Lennie Babins and Dr. Nora Kelner introduced Brain Gym and Memory Gymnastics, the final lecture of the series, and gave strategies to recall information and thus help us improve our memories.

Babins discussed the importance of the brain and how it works; how it links us to our past, present and future. He noted that we start losing some memory by the time we’re in our 40s but noted that activities physiologically improve memory by keeping the brain active and creating new connections.

“Changes occur [in the brain] when we do tasks,” he explained, “and the more we stimulate it, the more connections are made.”

He discussed typical memory complaints – forgetting names, appointments, where you parked your car – and noted that when memory complaints become more serious, then it is important to be evaluated.

“Just as the body ages and we may need to compensate seeing by wearing glasses,” said Kelner, “our brain also changes and we need to learn methods to compensate.”

We may discover that we are slower in processing information and our ability to multi-task is less efficient. Kelner suggested using internal memory aids in order to retain information and recall it.  

She explained that mnemonics are organized mental systems or strategies used to improve memory and they can be verbal or visual. For example, to remember names of people, focus on something about them (eyes, nose, height), and associate that with the name. Have physical reminders by placing items in a prominent place – keys on the front table, pills on the counter, shopping lists on the refrigerator.

Another method to retain information is by story telling, linking items from a list or sequence of events and creating a story with the words. To remember a list of soup, boots, nail polish and dry cleaner, Dr. Kelner created: “Soup spilled on my boots. I took them to the dry cleaner where nail polish was put on the stain.”

She said that we should pay attention and focus while doing an action so that we will remember having done it. That is, when locking the front door, concentrate on the action and actually tell yourself what you are doing.

“It may sound funny at first,” she said, “but it helps.”