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Welcome to Senior school - tricks to improve your memory

Decades since you've been in the classroom? In a new series, Weekend will help you to educate yourself in the most up-to-date thinking on everything from health to technology. Today, we kickstart your later life learning by teaching you tricks to improve your memory…


Photo posed

Photo posed

Dr Sabina Brennan TCD. Photo: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

Dr Sabina Brennan TCD. Photo: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

Set yourself a mental challenge

Set yourself a mental challenge

Use your other hand

Use your other hand

Food - eat the rainbow

Food - eat the rainbow


Photo posed

When September rolls around, some of us never shake off that 'new year' feeling. You might have felt a twinge of nostalgia seeing kids breaking in their new uniforms and backpacks in recent weeks, and grown wistful thinking about your own back-to-school days, when you sharpened your pencils and carefully printed your name on all your new copybooks. But over the last couple of decades, teaching and learning have evolved dramatically, and the classroom might now seem utterly unfamiliar to us.

You won't find kids sharpening their pencils anymore (they've probably traded their textbooks for an iPad), nor will they be dutifully repeating after teacher "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" - those traditional lessons have been chucked out in favour of totally revised thinking on everything from nutrition to physical exercise to technology.

Of course, learning doesn't end when we leave school, and what better time than September to revisit some of those lessons and take a fresh stab at the basics once again?

As we are living longer, healthier lives, many people over 50 are going back to school to finish their education or pursue a new degree.

According to Aontas, the national adult learning organisation, 58,101 (or 20pc) of the total QQI awards in 2016 were made to students over 50. The majority are Further Education and Training (NFQ Levels 1-6), and some are Higher Level (NFQ Levels 7-10), and include both part-time and full-time courses.

Midlifers return to education for many reasons: to learn something new, to upskill, to meet new people, or to get a qualification.

Éilis O'Regan, programme coordinator at the Centre for Adult Learning and Professional Development at NUI Galway, notes that 22pc of its students are aged 50+, and the most popular courses are diploma programmes in humanities and social sciences, particularly languages, Irish Studies, archaeology, English and drama. The courses tend to take place in the evenings and on weekends, and can be completed online or face-to-face.

"Those in the 50-plus age category are doing it more for personal development and a special interest for themselves. When you compare the results our adult learners achieve, they tend to do better than their full-time undergraduate counterparts," says Éilis.

"They're constrained by time due to family and work commitments, but they're a bit more efficient with their learning. They work hard, they've invested the money and they want to see the return, so they generally want to get a First or a 2.1. The majority of them do achieve that."

She adds: "Students aged above 50 also have the benefit of life experience that they can apply to their learning, so they're better at managing their time and better at meeting their deadlines."

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As well as going back to the classroom, more and more people in their 50s, 60s and beyond are developing later life skills and getting to grips with the online world. Many do so through Age Action's Getting Started programme, which provides computer, tablet and smartphone training to over-55s on a one-to-one basis with volunteer tutors. The classes cover everything from Google search to online banking to Skype, and national development manager Jennifer Glansford notes that her oldest student was 97. This year, Age Action will provide 10 hours' training to some 2,500 people in 14 counties.

"Generally speaking, people are very quick to learn," she says. "The biggest reason people join the class is because they feel excluded from what's going on in daily life - news websites, Facebook, email, podcasts, whatever. It's all digitised and people have this sense that they're not in the modern world and they want to become part of it."

Over the next six weeks, we'll be bringing you a refresher on the classes of your school days, from PE to technology to home economics, but not as you knew them. You won't need a freshly stocked pencil case or a shiny new lunchbox - to get you started, brush up on our skills for learning with psychologist Dr Sabina Brennan. So roll up your sleeves, turn over the clean white page of a new term and kickstart your re-education now.

As we grow older, many of us may worry that occasional forgetfulness is just the beginning of an unstoppable deterioration of our mental faculties, leading to the loss of cherished memories and inability to recall new experiences. We're all familiar with the well-worn stereotype of the confused, scatter-brained older person, but Dr Sabina Brennan (sabinabrennan.ie), psychologist and researcher at Trinity College Dublin, notes that "decline in cognitive function is not inevitable".

"Forgetting where you put your keys for the third time in a week is not necessarily something you need to visit your doctor about, nor is forgetting the name of a person you have just met or even someone you haven't seen in years. Names can slip anyone's mind and there is no reason to be concerned about that," she says.

"However, it might be worth chatting to a doctor if you get disorientated about where you are or what time of the day it is, or start repeating the same story every day without realising it."

She adds that as we age, our cognitive abilities do undergo certain changes, such as a "general slowing", similar to what we experience with our physical abilities.

The best way to support memory function, she notes, is to invest in brain health. That means getting plenty of exercise, staying socially engaged, looking after your heart, getting good sleep, managing stress, and challenging your brain to learn new things.

Professor William O'Connor, head of teaching and research in physiology at the University of Limerick's Graduate Entry Medical School, argues that while we lose certain aspects of our memory, notably the ability to recall, "It's a fallacy that as people get older their memory disimproves."

"Your brain is active all of your life," he explains. "There is new evidence that in the teenage years, information processing peaks. In the mid-20s, your short term memory peaks. In the mid-40s, your memory for faces peaks. Up into your 70s and 80s, your overall intelligence and wisdom peak - in other words, your ability to put memories in context and look at the overall patterns in life. Twenty-year-olds don't have that ability."

Prof O'Connor, who reports on the latest findings in brain research on his website inside-the-brain.com, says lifestyle is the key to a healthy brain. "What keeps your memory healthy is what keeps your body healthy. You can't separate the body and the mind. The brain is like a car parked in a car park, and when you put the key in and turn on the car, you have the mind, the brain in action. If you look after it and get it regularly serviced, then the car will perform better and longer," he says.

Dr Brennan explains that the first step in the memory process is attention, and that stress, medication and alcohol can lead to absent-mindedness. Cutting down on alcohol and learning to manage stress through exercise, meditation or mindset can be a good place to start.

"If you think medication might be the culprit, read the leaflet or speak to your GP about alternatives - never come off medication without consulting your doctor," she says.

In a time of increasing busyness, where we are surrounded by technology, smartphone notifications and social media 24 hours a day, it is possible to get a better grip on our attention.

"One technique is to stay in the moment, which is to focus on what you are doing while you are doing it. Pilots do this - they use self-talk, check lists and talk through their actions with their co-pilot to keep them in the moment," she says.

"Another way is to learn to focus on a task at hand or to make a point of 'switching on' your attention. Mindfulness is when you call attention and focus to the present moment by focusing on breath, body sensation or something in the here and now - it's also useful for managing depression.

"While listening to a radio talk show, try turning your attention on and off every minute. Listen intently, drift off, then concentrate on what's being said again. Carry on like this for five to 10 minutes. If you practice this technique each day, you'll notice how much the power of your attention can vary. Gradually, your skills at recognising the difference will sharpen and you will tighten your control over your attention. Attention can be trained to behave itself and research suggests that physical exercise also helps."

Prof O'Connor adds that developing a curious mind can help delay memory problems, and an easy way to do so is to take your exercise outdoors. Even walking into town, doing your shopping and walking home can have a positive effect on the brain.

"Never walk the same route into town, because the brain responds to novelty. It's important that the brain is kept active in an environment that gives the brain lots of things to process," he says. "That's the best kind of exercise, when the brain and the body are being exercised at the same time - not in the gym, where people just switch off their brains and listen to music.

"You need lots of information to feed the brain, and the best place to do that is outdoors in an environment that's interesting."

You can also use this time to sharpen your memory skills by practicing focused attention exercises, which can be as simple as listening to your feet hitting the pavement as you walk.

Learning a new skill is a great way to keep the brain active. Prof O'Connor explains that to amplify brain activity, the best skills are those with have a social element and require you to be physically active.

"One that comes to mind is life drawing classes - that often involves getting up and looking at the person and the different aspects of you're drawing, and you're also looking at other people and what they're drawing, and you do this once a week for 12 or 15 weeks, so it's much more physically active than just sitting down. On top of that, you're socialising, because there are people around you, and you're having conversations with them," he says.

Over the age of 50, recall of details can be more difficult, particularly on the spur of the moment. To improve your ability to recall, Prof O'Connor suggests taking a multi-sensory approach to encoding memories.

"The more senses you employ in learning something, the easier it is to recall it, because you have five ways to retrieve it - seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling," he explains.

For example, if you frequently lose track of your keys, get into a habit of saying out loud "I'm putting my keys down here by the bedside table" when you put them down.

"You're using hearing to reinforce where your keys are, and chances are you'll remember it quicker and more easily after you've had your breakfast. The more senses that you use in laying down a memory and coding it in the brain, the easier it is to recall it, because there will be more connections."

Dr Brennan advises taking advantage of advances in technology wherever possible to help yourself remember particular details, thereby saving brain resources for learning new things.

"We live in such high-tech times that most people probably already use memory aids such as alarms, timers and calendars on their phone or computer. I would advocate more systematic and wider use of these aids and good old-fashioned memory aids like post-it notes, to-do lists, notebooks and white boards all work perfectly well too," she says. "Be disciplined about entering all appointments and deadlines - whether it's a coffee with a friend, your house insurance renewal date or a doctor's appointment - into your calendar system as soon as you make them. It can be well worth taking the time to set up regular reminders for important recurring tasks like medications and appointments."

Mind booster

Use the other hand

If you're right-handed, swap over to the left hand - or vice-versa - when doing simple, everyday tasks such as making a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, combing your hair or buttoning up your shirt. It may take a little longer to complete the task than normal, but using the non-preferred hand can help to strengthen the brain.

Mind booster

Wear your watch upside down

Wearing your watch the wrong way forces your brain to rotate the face of the watch to find out the time. Prof O'Connor explains that the part of the brain that carries out the rotation in space is the same part where Alzheimer's disease starts. "If you look at your watch two or three times a day over a period of months, you're doing little exercises for that part of the brain, keeping it more resilient, more connected and fitter, so it can fight off injury and infection much better."

Mind booster

Exercise your imagination


Set yourself a mental challenge

Set yourself a mental challenge

Set yourself a mental challenge


Set yourself a mental challenge - what would you do with the back garden if you won €20,000 in the Lotto? Would you add a conservatory, move the shed, put up walls down the side with some shrubs running along? "That way of thinking about the future is easy for young people to think about, but it becomes more difficult as you get older and that needs to be exercised," says Prof O'Connor. "Imagination is very important in older people."

What to eat for a healthy brain

Oily fish: The elite brain food is fish oil, but Prof O'Connor advises against spending money on expensive supplements, and instead incorporating fish into your weekly diet. "Don't go buying fish oil tablets, just eat fish - herrings, sardines, mackerel, salmon. Buy them in oil, not in brine, and eat them once a week on toast or in a sandwich," he says.

Eat the rainbow: "The rule of thumb is the brighter the colour, the better," he notes, citing colourful fruit and vegetables like blueberries and cherry tomatoes as rich in powerful antioxidants or anti-ageing chemicals.

Porridge: Nuts and seeds are important for the brain, but Prof O'Connor recommends taking cues from what we feed our animals. "What is really healthy for us is grass seeds like oats, millet and barley. Ironically, these are now regarded as inferior and are fed to horses and cows, and instead we feed ourselves elite grass seeds called wheat, which isn't really that healthy for us, it's too refined for our gut," he says, adding that we're better off with porridge oats for breakfast with fruit than a bowl of cornflakes.

Water: If you're thirsty, it's too late, warns Prof O'Connor - you're already dehydrated. We need to drink lots of water, and those living in the countryside who are lucky enough to have their own well are even better off. But stay away from sparkling water, or any fizzy drinks, as recent research has linked carbonated beverages to premature ageing.

How to remember…

… the name of somebody you've just met

If you feel you have the name on the tip of your tongue, Prof O'Connor suggests using the 'alphabetical filing cabinet' method. Go through the alphabet, and as you move through A, B, C, there may be a connection which will help you pull out the name.

When you first meet someone, Dr Brennan recommends behaving as if you're interested in the person's name as soon as you hear it. "Just as we feel happy when we smile, if we act fascinated by a name we become a little fascinated by it. Think of why it is of interest," she explains. To give names more meaning, attach rhyming or alliterative add-ons, like 'Super Susan' or 'Perfect Pete'. "We can direct our attention better by repeating the name out loud after hearing it, or asking them to spell the name. Recall the name to yourself after a few minutes; nothing polishes a memory like repeated use."

… a phone number

Use a process known as 'memory chunking', where you divide information such as a phone number into blocks of three or four digits, for example: 369 - 456 - 6890.

… where you left your keys

Establish a 'one-drop place' for important items that you need (and lose) regularly, such as keys, glasses, passports, driving license, hospital appointment cards and so on. Dr Brennan advises being strict about putting these items in the designated place and only this place when you come home - never put them anywhere else. Do this for two to three weeks until it becomes a habit.

… directions

Ask for directions in the format that you remember best - some people need to see it written down, others prefer to hear it or visualise it.

… a shopping list

"Visualisation can help make information stick in your memory," Dr Brennan explains. "Our brain has the capacity to remember information through any of our five senses, and activating more brain areas as you learn could increase the likelihood of remembering something." Next time you have to remember a shopping list, imagine biting into that juicy pear, smelling the bleach or hearing the sizzle of the steak cooking on the pan together with the smell of frying onions.

… where you've parked your car

Take a photo of the car park location or write the location on your parking ticket, then develop a habit of putting that ticket in the same place, such as your wallet or suit pocket, each time.

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