Forget it: those quick-fix apps won’t help you remember
Nothing will halt natural dulling of faculties, but there's a lot to be said for diet, exercise, and not worrying so much
When Professor Alan Baddeley is given a new set of students to teach, he tells them right away that he will not be able to remember their names.
“My memory’s terrible now,” the 84-year-old says, “and I don’t feel guilty about it. I forget to do things. I make mistakes sometimes when working out my change, especially in a poorly lit pub. I find it harder to learn new things, and to do several things at the same time.”
Baddeley’s predicament will be familiar to anybody approaching their senior years, and could even ring true for somebody as young as 40, the age at which our “episodic” memory (your ability to remember details about your own life) begins its slow decline. But he has one advantage over his peers: as a respected expert in human memory at the University of York, Baddeley knows there’s little he can do to stop it: “I accept it. I think it’s important to keep healthy and lively, but I don’t expect to increase the capacity of my memory, or even to stop it reducing to any great extent.”
In recent years we have been inundated with a world of brain games, memory puzzles and quick-fix apps that promise to improve our memory. The internet now offers tens of thousands of such “memory games”, including the app Luminosity, which boasts 95 million users, and CogniFit, which offers “training programmes” to boost your short-term memory. Schoolchildren are now encouraged to join (somewhat controversial) “brain gyms”, which have exploded in popularity over the past decade after a Swedish study indicated that working memory (your ability to store information while you process it) could be bettered through training.
Meanwhile, it seems that every week a study identifies a new quick fix promising to sharpen our recollective powers. Some are truly bizarre. A study published recently in the American Academy of Neurology suggested that adults who move around more (including light housework) experience memory improvement, while neuroscientists at the University of Geneva found that participants who slept on a rocking bed or hammock were better able to remember new words they had learnt the previous day. This is probably because those in a rocking bed enjoyed better quality sleep than those who stayed put, falling asleep faster and waking up fewer times.
Scientists in the US city of Nashville are testing whether nicotine patches – known to stimulate an area of the brain important for thinking and memory – can enhance memory, while New York-based retailer Plant People recently launched a CBD (cannabidiol) product which it claims can do the trick.
But do any of these “aides-memoires” really work? Can you enhance your memory with a brain-training app? Or do the forces of mental decline lie beyond our control?
Baddeley thinks most attempts to cling to your fading memories will prove fruitless. He’s sceptical of the new generation of memory apps and online “brain gyms”, which he says only tend to boost your performance in tasks that are “broadly similar” to the ones you do in the app. Memory is not a “muscle” that can be strengthened with practice, he says. “Basically, there’s very little that improves your actual memory, including lots and lots of practice. Take the Memory Champions, who take part in annual world championships and do fantastic memory tasks like memorising the order of a shuffled pack of cards, or 100 binary numbers. If you take them away from the things they have practised, they’re pretty ordinary.”
Indeed, in a 2018 study, scientists at Canada’s Western University largely debunked the idea that brain games could boost our working memory. They looked at whether playing one brain-training app for several hours would make somebody better at playing a different app that fired up the same part of the brain. The answer was a resounding no: high scores in the first game had no impact whatsoever on performance in the second game.
But there’s no need to delete your beloved brain games just yet. While they have little proven impact on working memory, there is some evidence to suggest that they can improve our concentration.
Last month, researchers at Cambridge University found that playing Decoder, a mathematical iPad puzzle, for eight hours over a month enhanced attention and concentration. Testing on 75 healthy young adults, the study found that those who had played the game performed better in a concentration test than those who played Bingo and those who played no game at all. The boost was comparable to that caused by concentration drugs like Ritalin, which is used to treat children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
As for other quick fixes (rocking beds, nicotine patches, CBD oil), Baddeley isn’t willing to discredit them entirely, but warns that many similar studies published in recent years have found a correlation, but not necessarily a causation.
While you might find it difficult to fight the decline of your memory, he says, you can certainly improve your methods of handling it, by better organising your life to take account of your declining faculties. This is why elderly people often become masters in the subtle art of diaries, Post-it notes, oven timers and shopping lists, he says. Indeed, though laboratory studies find that prospective memory (remembering you have a party on a certain day, say) is stronger in the young than the old, real-world experiments found the precise opposite. When asked to phone a certain person at a certain time, older people actually performed better than younger people, despite their weaker memories.
“It’s because they’re more organised, they have less chaotic lives,” he explains. “The answer is to think about what’s really important to remember and what’s not, and not to worry – the fact you can’t remember everyone’s names doesn’t mean you’ve got Alzheimer’s.”
Food for thought or jog your memory
Are we destined, then, to sit around counting the days as our cherished memories fade away? Not quite. While these quick fixes may not be the golden bullet we would like, there is evidence to suggest that our long-term physical health can make a difference.
Professor Cary Cooper, from the University of Manchester’s business school, says diet and exercise are the macro factors that can noticeably improve our cognitive abilities, including memory.
“Ensuring that you’re physically healthy enhances your memory and keeps your memory active,” he explains. He also highlights the importance of social interaction in keeping you sharp, praising the schemes launched recently by some local authorities where nursery-age children are brought to nursing homes to play with elderly residents.
This is largely the stance of dementia charities such as Alzheimer’s Research UK, who are careful not to promote any quick fixes, but say maintaining good long-term health can drastically reduce your risk of developing dementia.
“Recent research suggests that the number of dementia cases would fall by around a third if it were possible to eliminate health conditions and lifestyle risks that contribute to risk,” says Dr David Reynolds, the charity’s chief scientific officer. “The best current evidence indicates, in addition to staying physically active, not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, only drinking in moderation, eating a balanced diet, and staying mentally active are linked to better brain health as we age.”
Baddeley agrees that exercise is one of the few “plausible” harbingers of improved memory, although he admits it’s something of a “chicken and egg problem”.
“You will find that people who exercise more have better cognitive performance in general. But if you’re not very well then you don’t want to exercise, so is it the health that’s driving the exercise or the other way round?”
It looks, then, like downloading a memory puzzle app might not be enough to help us cling on to our cherished memories. Instead, we must follow the (slightly less exciting) route of diet, exercise and healthy living. That’s assuming we remember any of this advice, of course.
– © The Daily Telegraph