As we age our brain changes and we have more memory lapses, fuzzy-thinking, and it gets harder to process what we learn. This could be due to a variety of reasons, such as stress, multi-tasking, sleep deprivation, or diabetes.
"The decline you're noticing is real — and it starts before age 30," says Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., professor at the University of California at San Francisco’s Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences. "A 60-year-old brain takes in information two to three times slower than a 20-year-old brain. As a result, what's stored in memory is two to three times less clear and detailed. And by age 80, you may be five to eight times slower. That's a big difference!"
Now that you have the bad news, what can we do about it? Can an old dog be taught new tricks? "We used to think that with age, brain cells shriveled up, died, and that was that," says Paul Laurienti, M.D., Ph.D., a brain researcher at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "Now we know that even older brains can grow new, stronger connections."
In 2007, Dr. Laurienti conducted a study that scanned the brains of 23 elderly people. He found that those who'd gone through a memory training program were able to focus better than those who did not. There are other verifiable studies that have concluded that using the old ‘noggin’ actually does build new connections and slows the brain aging process.
There are now dozens of memory training books, video games and ‘brain games’ on the market – all promoting the fact that if you do them, or buy their program, they can stop you from getting Alzheimer’s disease. Do they actually work? Although the jury may still be out on this, there is a good possibility that some of them may at least slow the process down.
What makes for a good game that will boost your memory? According to experts, there needs to be at least two criteria present – you must do them regularly, and they must be challenging. "Brain training is analogous to physical workouts," says brain researcher professor Sherry L. Willis, Ph.D., of Pennsylvania State University’s Human Development and Family Studies. "You have to cross train — work different parts of your brain and keep adding new challenges." One the game gets too easy it’s time to move on to something more challenging.
Here are a few games that actually could be of benefit to improve your memory:
§ Brain Fitness Program – This program claims to retrain your brain to hear information better in order to boost memory storage and recall. In a company-sponsored study, 93% of 182 elderly people reduced their memory age by as much as 10 years. The cost of the program is high, but appears to be justified.
§ Keep Your Brain Alive – Written by Duke University neurobiology professor Lawrence C. Katz, PhD and Manning Rubin, this program uses the five senses in what they call ‘neurobic’ exercises to stimulate nerve cells in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex (areas of the brain responsible for memory and abstract thought). Basically it is retraining your brain to utilize different areas, and those who have tried it say it definitely is invigorating.
§ Happy Neuron - A team of French neuroscientists and computer engineers put together a series of 28 different computer game exercises that cross train your brain and focus on a number of different brain functions – including memorizing, attention, visual and spatial skills, language, and logic. The pilot study showed 10 people with memory problems showing significant improvement in cognitive skills after playing Happy Neuron 3x a week for six months. They also were following a healthy diet and exercise plan as well as engaging in social interaction, so there is no conclusive evidence that the game was the reason for the improvement. For those who like computer games this may be something you would like to check out.
§ Mind Fit - Developed by Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., “MindFit is designed to boost cognitive skills, including short-term memory, reaction times, recall, and eye-hand coordination.” This ‘brain game’ claims to train 14 different areas of your brain in order to enhance cognitive powers and memorizing. It is customer fit to your specific needs, but some who played it found it boring. In a company-sponsored study, 171 men and women played this game three times a week for three months and had "greater improvement in the cognitive domains of spatial short-term memory, visual-spatial learning, and focused attention" than study volunteers who played ordinary computer games.
Brain games have been shown to improve memory and help people with problems remembering names and faces, and there are a lot of them out there. Those developed by neuroscientists seem to show the most impact because it is in their field. It is up to you if you want to outlay money for these games. There are many free online that you can experiment with.
The most important thing in trying to improve your memory is that you are doing something to actively keep your brain alive and working – and basically that is what these games are teaching you. You can also take memory training workshops and listen to CD’s on memory techniques that will do the same thing – make you think and challenge your brain.