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A New Way to Keep Memory Sharp as the Brain Ages

Test yourself on jokes, names, other information

It also helps to talk about what you are trying to remember. At a party, you and your spouse or friend can check in with each other and review names of people you just met. Or if you and your spouse like to read aloud to each other interesting snippets from the newspaper, next time just put the information in your own words. Then double-check to make sure you got all the facts straight. As you get older, doing an accuracy check is key, researchers say. Because of age-related changes in the brain, older people are less likely than younger people to recall details, which makes them more susceptible to remembering incorrectly, says Gallo.

Why retesting works

Testing and retesting yourself helps because of the memory cues we form when trying to remember information, a study in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of Science shows. When you test yourself repeatedly, you are more likely to remember your memory cues and they are more likely to trigger your memory, researchers report. Also, successfully recalling those cues may make them easier to remember over time. Finally, getting something wrong on a test may force the brain to shift to a more effective cue.

In the study, researchers asked college students to memorize pairs of words in Swahili and English. The researchers encouraged all the students to think of memory cues, which in this case were words that looked or sounded like the Swahili word but meant something similar to the English word. A hint for the pair "wingu-cloud" could be "wing," for example.

On a final exam one week later, students who had been assigned to take practice tests on the word pairings scored better than those who had only restudied the pairs, Katherine Rawson of Kent State University and Mary Pyc of Washington University report. Rawson says their findings apply to older people as well. The importance of these cues is good news for older people, because research shows that aging doesn't impair a person's ability to use them, says Rawson.

Gallo puts everything he needs to remember in his iPhone or e-mail. He tries using memory triggers, such as forming an image of what he needs to remember, "but the problem is I always forget to do that," he says. And he's only 35.

Tina Adler is a freelance writer who covers health, science and the environment.

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