Stop losing the keys: How to boost your short-term memory

Can’t remember what you were just about to say?

Japanese researchers at the University of Kyoto pitted young chimps against human adults in tests of short-term memory-and overall, the chimps won. Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a researcher in the study and a pioneer in studying the mental abilities of chimps, was shocked and thinks one factor plays a major role: age.

Memory for images dissipates with age, leaving you having trouble “placing the face” or remembering names of people you have repeatedly met.

To see how your short-term memory stacks up, here’s a quick test from Dr. Jay Gottfried, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology and psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago and a neurologist at Northwestern Memorial Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.

Do you:

  • Remember the characters’ names in the last book you read or movie you saw?
  • Forget to pick up all the things you want at the grocery store?
  • Space out phone numbers, birthdays and appointments once or twice a day?
  • Lose your car in the parking lot?
  • Have trouble placing faces with names? Or call people by the wrong name?

If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of these questions, it’s time to give your short-term memory a boost.

Eat breakfast A study from the University of Wales Swansea Department of Psychology found missing breakfast can lead to a sluggish mid-to-late-morning memory. But, a breakfast of foods with the flavanol quercetin protects your memory from age-related wear and tear, say researchers from the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Aim for eating one cup of foods with quercetin a day. Onions and apples have the highest amounts, but you’ll also find it in blueberries, broccoli and kale.

Play the number game Pick a phone number you just can’t seem to remember and repeat it to yourself at least 10 times in a row. Gottfried says doing this a few times a day reinforces the number and exercises your short-term memory.

Play games Scrabble, chess and even brain teasers all give your short-term memory a good workout, Gottfried says.

Mix it up Breaking out of your daily routine exercises your brain and memory. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, reverse the order you do things in the shower or take a different route to work. “These require you to stay alert and challenge your memory to store new ways to accomplish tasks,” Gottfried says.

And don’t panic if your short-term memory seems to fail you. You’re not going crazy. “It just means your memory needs a tune-up,” Gottfried says.

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