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Exercising your memory story via The Express

Memory workout: How to boost powers of recall

ACTOR Sir Michael Gambon says he’s retiring from the stage because he can’t remember lines. So what are the best ways to boost your powers of recall?


Dr Joanna Iddon is a consultant neuropsychologist specialising in Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss and is co-author of Memory Boosters: 10 Steps To A Powerful Memory.

She says such everyday tasks as going to the supermarket are a brilliant way to exercise our minds. “Next time you go shopping try breaking your shopping list down into categories such as fruit and vegetables, toiletries and dairy. Then see how much you can remember without referring to the list,” she suggests.

“If you forget your shopping list use the same category search method to try to recall what you went in for. This will ‘cue’ you to buy the right items.

“And when you cannot recall a piece of information such as the name of an actor go through each letter of the alphabet to find the first letter of the word or name you are trying to remember in order to jog your memory.”


A compelling study by the University of Indiana suggests that writing by hand enhances the neural activity of the brain far more than a keyboard, helping to keep our minds sharp.

Yet a recent British survey of 2,000 people revealed that one in three of us hasn’t written anything by hand in the previous six months.

James Story of stationery company Pen Heaven says: “Writing by hand has been shown to harness large parts of the brain associated with language and memory. Switch off your computer or tablet at the end of the day and make time to handwrite a diary or letter to keep your brain active.”


Dr Iddon suggests doing this quick test. Read the list of numbers below then look away from the page and see how many you can recall in order: 6, 4, 8, 1, 2, 9, 4, 2, 6, 7, 5, 9, 1, 3, 5, 3, 8, 5, 7 and 9 “It’s possible to remember longer numbers using a strategy called ‘chunking’,” she explains. “Have you ever noticed that phone numbers are broken down into chunks, never longer than six in a row? “There is a good reason for this – it helps us to remember.”

Test yourself by going through the phone numbers in your address book or mobile phone and seeing how many you can memorise using the chunking method.

And when doing your finances ditch the calculator and use your brain instead.


Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise – anything where you feel out of breath – improves cognitive function.

Exercise is also thought to encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped area of the brain that is crucial for memory and learning.

A European study of people in their 60s and 70s found that older people who engage in regular physical activity reduce their risk of vascular-related dementia by 40 per cent and cognitive impairment by 60 per cent.

Almost 64 per cent of participants walked, cycled, gardened or went to the gym for at least 30 minutes three times a week.


Dr Jessamy Hibberd is a clinical psychologist and author of This Book Will Make You Mindful. She advocates getting out of your comfort zone as a quick way to stimulate brain activity.

“Sit in a different chair when you watch TV or at the dinner table,” she says. You could also try walking a different route to the shops or trying new recipes to revitalise your mind.


Studies have shown that those who maintain social contact fare better in memory and concentration tests. So join clubs and take up new activities, especially those that require brain, eye and hand co-ordination such as gardening, cooking, knitting or sewing, and those that stretch your brain such as chess or bridge.


Researchers at Plymouth University found that in memory tests doodlers performed 29 per cent better than non-doodlers when asked to recall names and places. So pick up a notepad and pencil.


Actress Dame Judi Dench this week told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that she credits a health supplement called IQ for keeping her memory sharp.

“I was told about it in 2002 and started to take it then because I was learning the Breath Of Life by David Hare with Dame Maggie (Smith),” says Dame Judi. “We both took them and I’ve put everybody on them since. They are absolutely wonderful.

“I take two IQ in the morning and that’s it. And I actually try to learn something every day, just one fact every day. I’m a games player and I love things that involve words.”

Studies have also shown that a daily glass of blueberry juice can help sharpen recall. According to a 12-week study of older adults with signs of dementia at the University of Cincinnati, those who drank blueberry juice showed a “significant improvement in learning and memory tests”.


Research has long proven that meditation and mindfulness, which challenge people to keep their attention fixed on their thoughts, can sharpen attention and improve memory.

And several recent studies have shown that meditating for as little as 12 to 20 minutes a day can reap these benefits.

Psychotherapist Julie Hirst is the founder of and recommends trying a mindfulness exercise known as The Hourglass.

She says: “Find somewhere quiet to go. Close your eyes and become aware of how you’re feeling, what thoughts are in your head and any tension in your body.

“Next, shift your attention to your breathing. Some people find it helpful to say ‘in’ and ‘out’ as they breathe.

“Finally expand your attention again by becoming aware of the weight of your hands on your lap, your facial expression and how you are feeling.”


Sofie Sandell is a creativity expert. “To stimulate your brain start the day by smelling something you wouldn’t normally smell in the morning,” she says.

“And listen to music that you wouldn’t ordinarily tune into – when we are in a pattern of repetition our minds stop developing.”


There are countless memory courses where you can learn tricks to boost your memory and even how to remember the sequence of an entire pack of playing cards. Try which also offers online courses.


A study last year by the University of Cambridge and Puzzler Media, the UK’s biggest generator of puzzles, concluded that Sudoku and other numerical puzzles exercise working memory and improve mental agility and alertness, while word puzzles such as crosswords help improve verbal fluency and recall.

“Activities which promote mental stimulation such as reading books and doing crosswords have been linked with a slower decline in cognitive function although there is no evidence that they reduce the risk of developing dementia,” says Dr Ian Le Guillou, research officer at Alzheimer’s Society.

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