MOST OF US, at one time or another, struggle with memory loss while trying to recall someone’s name, a phone number, or where we put the car keys. Besides being annoying and inconvenient, such instances add to a pervasive fear that we may be losing mental capacity. This fear is further heightened as we become aware of the increasing occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease within our close community of neighbors, friends, and family. So exactly what is this mysterious phenomenon called “memory”? How does it work? What hinders good memory function, and can we do anything to strengthen it?
MAKE A MEMORY
Memory making is a complex process made up of acquiring, storing, and recalling information. We are able to remember an amazing amount of information, some of which can stay in the brain’s storage system all our lives. Our memories help define who we are: our priorities, our emotional makeup, our morals, our culture, our beliefs, and
our abilities. We have two different types of memory: procedural memory describes the way the brain remembers not only how to do things such as playing the piano but also the memories and emotions associated with playing the piano. This is different from declarative memory, which is the conscious and detailed recall of specific incidents, such
as what you bought while shopping last evening or what happened during a recent visit with a friend.
Different parts of the brain—including the hippocampus, where memories are stored; neurons, which send messages to each other across narrow gaps called synapses; and specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters, which facilitate the sending and receiving of messages between neurons—all work together when building and maintaining memory.
YOUR SENSES PLAY AN IMPORTANT PART
What you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel—all contribute to the brain’s interpretation and impression of memory. Some memories stand out more vividly than others, depending on the senses involved and the degree of emotional impact. Initially, the brain consciously registers the memory, and this is called encoding. This is not a flawless process.
Sometimes we don’t feed the correct information into the brain because of a lack of concentration or emotional misinterpretation of detail. Most of the detailed data fed into our brains as we go through the day is not of major importance, and specifics can soon fade from short-term memory. We can remember that we ate breakfast yesterday but may have trouble remembering what we ate. However, we can strengthen a memory by recalling the same information again and again, such as rehearsing a Bible text or practicing a skill that involves muscular and thought coordination.
MEMORIES CAN CHANGE
Specific details in memories of long ago can change and lose their clarity as time goes by. This is a normal part of the brain’s aging process. However, some potentially detrimental factors can affect memory function at any time:
1. Trauma to the brain from a blow to the head or the effect of a stroke.
2. Prescription and over-the-counter medications that interfere with clarity of the thought process.
3. Decreased oxygen supply to the brain during illness, while dehydrated, when exposed to poor air quality, and from shallow breathing due to a sedentary lifestyle.
4. Poor quality and quantity of sleep.
5. Overloading the senses in a highly demanding, ultra-busy lifestyle and neglecting adequate relaxation and recuperation.
6. Depression and debilitating stress.
7. Lack of good nutrition.
GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREAK
It’s normal to have moments of forgetfulness from time to time, especially when life gets complicated and busy. We can also expect some decline in memory quality as we age. Sadly, genetics and the effects of some diseases have the potential to harm or destroy memory function and ability.
But there’s good news! Research shows that healthful lifestyle habits such as those listed below are big players in the promotion of brain health and memory function. So let’s get busy:
1. Eat less sugar. Too much sugar in the diet can lead to many health problems, including cognitive decline and poor memory retention.
2. Maintain normal body weight. A healthy body weight contributes significantly to better physical and mental function.
3. Get your rest. It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates, strengthens, and stores memories. Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adequate overall benefit. We also need Sabbath, that one day in seven provided by our Creator, to come apart from daily activities and find peace and rest for body, mind, and spirit through worship and fellowship.
4. Check your vitamin D level. A low blood level of vitamin D has been associated with a number of health risks, including decreased memory function and dementia. Lack of adequate sunshine and aging can both contribute to low levels of this important vitamin. Your doctor can order a simple blood test to determine if you need a vitamin D
5. Keep moving. Exercise has been shown to benefit the whole body, including the brain. Even moderate exercise for shorter periods of time—especially when done outside in the fresh air—has positive health benefits across all ages.
6. Don’t forget those fruits and veggies. Consuming a wide variety of healthful foods, especially fruits (particularly berries) and vegetables, provides the body with nutrients and vitamins that promote overall healthful benefits. And don’t neglect breakfast, which is considered an important component in enhancing cognitive function right from the start of the day. What Was I Supposed to Remember?
7. Give your brain a workout. Your brain can atrophy just like a muscle does when not used enough. Keep your brain functioning well by learning a new hobby or skill, reading, participating in word games, doing crossword puzzles, memorizing Scripture, joining a discussion or Bible study group, visiting a museum, studying a new language, traveling, learning a musical instrument, volunteering, and so on.
So much more could be said about brain function and the memory process. It’s a fascinating and inexhaustible study topic. How amazing it is that when it comes to any part of the human body, the guidelines for optimum health and function consistently go back to basic lifestyle directives given to us by a loving Creator: good nutrition, dequate rest, daily exposure to sunshine and fresh air, exercise, water, temperance choices, and most important of all—trust in God.
One more thing: Philippians 4:8 instructs us to direct our minds toward that which is honorable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report. In other words, focus our lives on making beautiful memories.