'I've Spent 40 Years Studying the Brain, and This Is the #1 Habit I Recommend for Memory Retention'

Brain and weights concept

Experiencing memory loss and becoming more forgetful is sometimes chalked up to a natural part of aging. According to CDC data, 1 in 10 adults ages 45 and older report memory loss. Age certainly is natural and out of your control, but is declining memory retention inevitable?

"Most of us have much more control than we realize when it comes to memory retention and brain health," says Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center.

This isn't to say that you can 100% prevent cognitive decline or ward off diseases like Alzheimer's all by yourself. Remember, we still don't have a full grasp on what even causes Alzheimer's.

However, Dr. Small has been studying the brain for more than four decades. He received his board certification from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1983, and wrote a book on memory, The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young. And he swears by one simple, three-step technique for memory retention.

Below, Dr. Small shares his favorite habit for memory retention and actionable tips for applying it to your everyday life.

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The No. 1 Best Habit for Improving Your Memory

Memory retention tips are a dime a dozen, but Dr. Small sums them up in three straightforward words—which is helpful if you're trying to remember things. "The multiple methods that compensate for age-related memory decline can be boiled down to three words, and I swear by their effectiveness: look, snap and connect," Dr. Small says.

Here's what he means.

  • Look. Consider this word a friendly reminder to focus your attention. "The biggest reason people forget is that they are distracted and never learn the information to begin with," Dr. Small says.

  • Snap. No, not with your fingers. "Snap reminds us to take a mental snapshot of what we wish to recall later," Dr. Small says. "This allows us to leverage the brain’s natural ability to remember visual information."

  • Connect. The final step builds on the previous two. "Connect is a way to link those mental snapshots so they have personal meaning," Dr. Small says. "If we can make something meaningful, it will become memorable."

Related: The One Clever Trick To Help You Always Remember the Names of Everyone You Meet

How to Make Look-Snap-Connect Work For You

A three-step habit to boost memory retention sounds great—easy, even—in theory. Yet, applying it can feel challenging. To help, Dr. Small offered a concrete example that leans into situations people say make them the most uncomfortable about their memory difficulties.

"It’s easy to apply this technique to common memory complaints, such as recalling names and faces," Dr. Small says.

Understandably, you might feel flustered if you struggle to remember the name of someone you've met before, especially if you've interacted numerous times. While it's nothing to be ashamed of, you might feel better by applying the look-snap-connect framework to help you remember people's names. Here's how.

"If you meet Harry and he has big bushy hair, focus on his hairdo to make it easier to recall his name later," Dr. Small says. "If Lisa has a Mona Lisa smile, lock that image in your brain, and you’ll address her by name the next time you see her."

Dr. Small swears by this habit, but he cautions people that it's not 100% guaranteed that you'll get someone's name correct in future conversations. "If you call her Mona the next time you meet, tell her about your memory method, and you’ll both have an unforgettable laugh together," he says.

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4 More Top Tips to Boost Your Memory

1. Physical exercise

Getting a move on benefits more than your physical health. It can also bolster your brain health.

"Regular cardiovascular conditioning improves brain circulation so the heart can pump oxygen and nutrients to brain cells, making them healthier and more efficient," Dr. Small says. "Exercise also produces endorphins that elevate mood and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which accelerates neuronal communications."

There's no need to adopt a go-hard-or-go-home mentality if physical exercise isn't your favorite thing. A recent study of people ages 40 to 79, published in JAMA Neurology, found that getting as few as 3,800 daily steps could reduce mental decline risks—especially if it's a brisk walk. Most participants could knock that out in 30 minutes (and it didn't have to happen all at once. People could break up the walk into smaller increments).

"You don’t have to become a triathlete to reap the benefits of exercise," Dr. Small says.

2. Healthy nutrition

The food you eat fuels the brain. "When we consume fish and nuts rich in omega-3 fats, we lower brain-damaging inflammation," Dr. Small explains. "Antioxidant fruits and vegetables protect brain neurons from the wear and tear of oxidative stress, and avoiding processed foods and refined sugars lowers risk for diabetes, a risk factor for cognitive decline."

If it sounds like Dr. Small is describing something resembling the Mediterranean diet, it's because he is. A 2023 study found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet had lower dementia risks than those who did not.

3. Mental stimulation

We covered physical activity. However, mental stimulation is also critical to keeping the brain in tip-top shape.

"Reading books, playing games, engaging in stimulating conversations, doing crossword puzzles or any activity that challenges our minds will keep our neural circuits healthy and strong," Dr. Small says.

Dr. Small stresses that, like physical exercise, mental stimulation isn't one-size-fits-all.

"The key is to train but not strain the brain, so find classes or other mental activities that are fun and engaging for you," Dr. Small says. "If the task is too difficult, it will be frustrating, and you’ll give up quickly. If it is too easy, it will become routine and fail to build brain muscle."

A study published on JAMA Open Network in 2023 found that people who engaged in enjoyable activities like crossword puzzles were less likely to develop dementia.

4. Manage stress

In addition to engaging your mind, try to ensure your mental health is the best it can be. "Stress is the enemy of memory," Dr. Small says. "It distracts us and leads to increases in the stress hormone cortisol, which can be harmful to the brain’s hippocampus, an important region that consolidates memories."

Research has found that chronic stress increases a person's risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's Disease. Stressed just thinking about it? "Meditation and other relaxation exercises have been shown to not only improve mood but boost memory abilities," Dr. Small shares.

Therapists can also help you develop coping skills to decrease your stress levels.

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  • When to talk to your doctor about memory loss. CDC.

  • Dr. Gary Small, MD, the chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center

  • What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

  • Association of Daily Step Count and Intensity With Incident Dementia in 78 430 Adults Living in the UK. JAMA Neurology.

  • Mediterranean diet adherence is associated with lower dementia risk, independent of genetic predisposition: findings from the UK Biobank prospective cohort study. BMC Medicine.

  • Lifestyle Enrichment in Later Life and Its Association With Dementia Risk. JAMA Open Network

  • Stress, depression, and risk of dementia – a cohort study in the total population between 18 and 65 years old in Region Stockholm. Alzheimer's Research and Therapy.