It happens to adults of all ages at one point or another: You leave work after a busy day and forget where you parked your car. Or you get up to grab an item from another room and can’t remember what it was once you get there.
Is it the start of memory troubles? Could Alzheimer’s disease be looming in the future?
Memory does naturally start to decline earlier than we think — when people are in their 30s — but such incidents are common and illustrate perfectly normal forgetting, said Dr. Richard Restak, a clinical professor of neurology and rehabilitation medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
“These are things that people needlessly worry about,” Restak, author of the book “The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind,” told TODAY.
In the case of the person unable to remember why they came into a room, “it sounds like a serious matter, but most of the time the person is preoccupied with something,” he noted. Blanking over the parking space happens when we rush to get to work or the mall, don’t pay attention to the location of the spot and fail to form a memory.
Now if you don’t remember how you got to the mall — whether by car or bus — that’s a sign of a memory that needs further investigation, Restak warned.
But forgetting often happens simply because we’re not focusing. Paying attention to something long enough to really observe it is key to memory, but that’s being threatened by all the rush, rush of modern society, he said.
“You’ve got to make efforts to set up your memory and keep it working,” he noted. “You want to enhance whatever natural abilities you might have.”
Here are his tips for keeping memory sharp at any age:
Keep reading fiction and cooking from recipes
Both activities employ the use of working memory — which involves maintaining a particular piece of information and moving it around your head, "so it doesn’t just sit there," Restak said.
Non-fiction books don’t quite do the job: You can jump back and forth and read only the information that interests you, if you wanted to.
“You can’t do that in a work of fiction. You have to go from beginning to end. But most importantly, you have to remember the characters. You have to remember something about them,” Restak noted. “It’s really much more challenging in terms of the brain.”
Following cookbook recipes is a similar concept. There are steps to keep track of and various bowls or pots to coordinate. Once you master the instructions, your working memory allows you make variations or take shortcuts.
Poker, bridge and chess can be helpful. Restak also liked crossword puzzles and Sudoku, but he was a fan of the game 20 Questions in particular.
All of these games also give your working memory a workout. “Working memory is associated with intelligence, therefore it’s a part of your mind that you want to maintain the best way you can, and it can be done in very informal ways,” Restak said.
He advised regularly doing mental exercises like naming U.S. presidents from Pres. Joe Biden to as far back in time as you can remember. Once you have that list in your head, then name only Democrats or Republicans. Then name all the presidents in alphabetical order. Those rearrangements let your working memory shine because you’ve got to keep in mind everything that you placed there before.
Restak recommended doing working memory exercises every day.
Convert words into images
We have to learn how to write and read, but we don’t have to learn how to see things, Restak pointed out.
Seeing is “more primal” than writing and reading, “so therefore if we could convert language into images, it will definitely enhance your memory. You’ll remember much easier,” he advised.
That’s the classic tip for remembering names. Restak recalled meeting someone named Dr. King and picturing him with a white coat, stethoscope and a crown on his head. It’s not always that easy, so you have to think about: What does that name sound like? Look like?
"Get in the habit of converting anything which you find hard to remember into a wild, bizarre or otherwise attention-grabbing image," Restak advised in his book.
Fix hearing and vision problems
These issues are shown to be directly related to the onset of dementia, most notably Alzheimer’s, Restak said.
“It’s hard to remember something that you haven’t seen clearly,” he noted. “(But) I think the hearing is even more important in some ways.”
Poor hearing is among 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia, according to a 2020 commission report in The Lancet.
It can change the context of a conversation and prevent people from keeping up in social situations, so it pays to protect your hearing in your younger years and use hearing aids when they become necessary.
Naps help consolidate memories, so if you’re studying or preparing for a presentation, take a sleep break afterwards — it can help you recall that information, Restak said.
His preferred nap length is 20 minutes. A daily nap can be helpful if it fits into your schedule — the afternoon can be the best time as people naturally become drowsy after lunch.
Be careful with alcohol
Alcohol is a weak neurotoxin — “killer of brain cells,” as Restak puts it in his book. If a person starts drinking in their early 20s, their brain will have decades of exposure to it by the time they become an older adult.
Excessive alcohol consumption is another modifiable risk factor for dementia, according to The Lancet report.
Restak advises his patients to stop drinking alcohol altogether by age 70 at the latest, “when it’s necessary to conserve as many neurons as possible,” he writes in his book.