Ready, set, reminisce: The brain benefits of sharing family memories

Talking about the past doesn’t just let you relive lovely memories. It may help you stay sharp in the future.

A couple looking through a photo album of memories

Looking back on fond memories with loved ones, as you might do at a family reunion or during the holidays, is a wonderful way to bring people together. And it can also help keep your brain sharp. In fact, there are many benefits to regularly sharing your life stories, such as recalling your childhood, career achievements, and raising your family.

Experts call it “reminiscence therapy.” It’s when somebody intentionally recalls shared memories or thinks about memories of people that they cared about or loved. And there is good evidence that it can have a positive effect on your brain, says David Merrill, M.D. He’s a geriatric psychiatrist and director of Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

This way of thinking back is used a lot to care for people with types of dementia such as Alzheimer’s, notes Dr. Merrill. “You may not be able to form new memories with advanced Alzheimer’s, but you can remember periods of your life, where you were growing up or younger times in your life, and that can be very comforting psychologically,” he says.

In fact, according to a review, immediately after doing reminiscence therapy, older adults showed fewer signs of depression.

There are clear benefits to sharing your memories with others. Reminiscing can help give you a sense of meaning and purpose too. It attaches value to your lived experience, says Dr. Merrill — such as reminding you of your role in helping to create a family or having a strong network of friends.

“It really puts people back on the center of the stage during the reminiscence, that they have a primary role in what’s going on,” Dr. Merrill says. “It’s really a way to celebrate their lives with people.”

Here’s how reminiscing can have a positive effect on your brain.

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How sharing memories improves your brain health

Sharing memories can be uplifting and calming. It can boost a person’s mood and counteract feeling sick or even depressed. Feeling joyful when reminiscing makes your brain function better, says Dr. Merrill. As your mood perks up, so does your brain. The result: You become more aware, alert, and better able to enjoy life.

“It puts the brain and body in a state of positive affect and positive activation, which is the opposite of feeling sick and down,” says Dr. Merrill.

Some great ways to accentuate the positive while you reminisce include sharing stories about:

  • A beloved memory of raising your kids or about a favorite pet
  • Challenges you overcame and high points from your jobs
  • Summer vacations or other fun trips

Another way to participate in reminiscence therapy is by sharing photos on social media and telling the story behind those photos. Elder Care Alliance suggests other ways to reminisce:

Make reminiscing part of your daily routine

There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule or exact science to how often to reminisce. But making it a part of your everyday routine is a good start.

“I think it would be good to have a daily practice of reminiscence. You might want to fold that in with a gratitude practice,” Dr. Merrill says. So, that could include starting a gratitude journal to capture those fond memories. It doesn’t even have to be on paper — it could be a file you start on your computer.

“Reminiscing about a meaningful moment or positive life event could be at a specific time of day or part of a morning ritual,” he suggests. “I think the benefit would be additive over time.”

Reminiscence therapy can have a threefold effect on your brain. It puts you in a better mood. It has a psychological benefit against depression. And it helps your social life by connecting with others through your stories.

Added bonus: Remembering the good times in your life can be a whole lot of fun. So go ahead, let the reminiscing begin!

Another great way to keep your brain sharp? Get access to BrainHQ’s science-backed brain training program. You might have access to BrainHQ, included with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today.

Additional sources:
Reminiscence therapy and depression: Frontiers in Psychology
Benefits of reminiscence therapy: Elder Care Alliance