Linda Sasser (MA’79; PhD’81) researched memory as a CU doctoral student and built a career as a national speaker helping people improve their brain health and strengthen their memory power. She lives in Peoria, Ariz. Find more brain health information and memory strategies in her book, Brain SENSE: A Guide and Workbook to Keep Your Mind and Memory Sharp.
What did your interest in memory stem from while at CU Boulder?
When I took cognitive psychology with Dr. Lyle Bourne at CU, I became fascinated with memory, since it is something we use and depend on constantly. In addition, I had been a teacher, and realized that in schools we expect students to learn a lot of information but don't always teach them strategies for remembering it! So I decided to do my dissertation research on memory.
When should people be proactive about brain health?
Since the brain is malleable and everything we do affects it, it is never too early to start developing lifestyle practices that enhance brain health. Exercise, which stimulates blood flow, is important because the blood takes oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Nutrition is also important, as there are connections between the gut microbiome and the brain.
How can someone improve memory?
My acronym, PAVE, consists of strategies for improving memory. P stands for "Pay attention," because we need to do that in order to encode information in the brain. We often think we have "forgotten" something, when it is possible that we did not pay sufficient attention to it in the first place to have it enter memory. The A stands for "Associate": We need to think of or form an association or connection between something we are trying to learn and something already in our memory. The V stands for "Visualize," as the brain more easily remembers images than verbal or numerical information. Trying to form a mental picture or image can help you recall something; for example, when you meet someone and hear their name, try to see the name in writing, as if they were wearing a name tag. The E stands for "Elaborate," which means we need to process information to a deeper level in order to remember it better. For example, thinking of associations and images for someone's name, instead of just hearing it once, should improve your chances of recalling it later.
If someone made one change to improve their brain, what would it be?
Exercise. It helps keep our cardiovascular system healthy — poor CV function is correlated with Alzheimer's disease. Exercise also increases blood flow, reduces stress and stimulates the production of BDNF which is believed to promote neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells.
What’s the biggest detriment to memory?
If there is no cognitive impairment, several factors: Chronic stress, which increases cortisol levels; insufficient or poor quality of sleep; excessive, regular alcohol intake can cause the hippocampus, a structure critical to learning and memory, to shrink.
What’s your favorite brain fact you like to share with people?
Neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections, is an exciting concept because it means that our brain can continue to change, grow and improve throughout our lives if we engage in a brain-healthy lifestyle.
A condensed version of this article appeared in the print issue of the Fall 2019 magazine.
Photos courtesy Linda Sasser