I can be frustrating to feel as though your memory is not as good as it used to be. The natural memory decline that comes with age can also be a scary prospect. However there are steps you can take to both improve your memory in the short term and stave off the effects of old age in the long term. What’s more, they are easy steps that you can incorporate into your everyday life.
1. Watch what you eat:
We know that a healthy diet affects our bodies in a multitude of ways and we can see those effects in our weight and general fitness. However it also affects areas of the body we can’t see, including the brain. Several studies have found a link between obesity and general cognitive decline1 and shown that young adults with a high BMI perform worse in cognitive tests than those with a low BMI2, showing that for our mind to remain healthy (and to avoid subsequent memory problems), our body must remain healthy too. Here are some specific dietary changes that can boost your memory performance:
– Eat less sugar:
Diets that are high in sugar have been consistently associated with poorer memory performance. One study found that a short term increase in sugary drinks drastically inflamed areas of the brain associated with memory performance in rats3. Another study using humans found that regularly consuming sugary drinks, including fruit juice, led to poorer memory performance. Furthermore it was associated with a lower overall brain volume and lower brain volume in areas that are important for memory4. These studies show that sugary drinks are particular culprits so if you drink them regularly, consider cutting down.
– Eat omega-3 rich foods:
Most commonly associated with oily fish, there are other sources of omega-3s including: spinach, broccoli, walnuts, seaweed, kidney and pinto beans as well as most seeds, but particularly flaxseed and pumpkin seeds. Alternatively buy a fish oil or omega-3 supplement.
The overall health benefits of omega-3s have been known for a long time, but there are also many benefits to the brain. It can help boost your memory now and also lessen the cognitive effects that often come with old age. One study found that patients with mild cognitive impairment showed a reduction in impairment symptoms after taking a fish oil supplement for 24 weeks. Another group taking an olive oil placebo showed no such benefits5.
Interestingly, one study indicated that taking omega-3 supplements for 6 months can also improve working memory performance in young adults aged 18-256. Working memory does not refer to how long we can remember things for or how well we can recall an important piece of information. Instead, our working memory is our capacity to hold and manipulate information in our minds.
Participants in this study were shown a series of letters and numbers and asked to keep track of which ones had appeared previously. Therefore the ability to boost working memory could have huge benefits in our ability to work and perform everyday tasks like remember a shopping list.
– Drink caffeine:
The evidence for caffeine as a natural memory booster is not as overwhelming as the evidence for omega-3s. However there is still a body of evidence suggesting it can help in some circumstances.
Its general stimulating effects lead to increased arousal and thus an increased ability to remember information in sub-optimal conditions, for instance (as you probably expect) caffeine can help you pay attention when tired7.
Interestingly, one study found that taking caffeine directly after, instead of before, reviewing information can improve memory consolidation in young adults, as seen by their performance on a memory test 24 hours later8.There are also of course negative effects associated with too much caffeine so if you wish to use it as a natural memory boost make sure to do so in moderation.
– Eat chocolate:
Yes you read correctly! Chocolate, specifically dark chocolate of at least 70% coco solids, contains “cocoa flavonoids” which have been shown to have positive effects on the brain through increasing blood flow and blood vessel growth. One study showed that eating dark chocolate had more positive effects on cognitive function, including spatial working memory, compared to eating the same amount of white chocolate9.
– Eat fewer simple carbs:
Simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice and cakes have many negative health associations, including for the brain. For example, a study assessing the diets of 317 children found that regular consumption of refined carbs was associated with a worse performance during cognitive tasks, including short term and working memory10.
So if you want your memory to be the best it can possibly be it is important to opt for more complex carbs such as brown rice and bread.
– Get your 5 a day:
It should come as no surprise that eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is good for the brain. One study gathered many findings together and confirmed that in over 31,000 people aged over 65 there were fewer instances of cognitive decline or dementia, equivalent to a 13% reduction per 100g increase in fruit and veg intake11. And of course there are many other benefits to eating your 5 a day so there’s really no excuse not to!
– Don’t binge drink:
Monitor your alcohol intake closely because there are numerous risks associated with high levels of drinking. Not least is the effect on cognition, including memory. One study of 155 students tested regularly over 6 years found that those who were regular binge drinkers scored lower in memory tests than those who were not binge drinkers12.
Interestingly, those who recently gave up binge drinking showed the same negative impact of binge drinking, but those who gave up more than two years ago did not. Thus, the brain can at least in part recover from the damage it sustains from heavy drinking sessions.
2- Get plenty of sleep:
You might feel like you can get by on less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night and you’re not alone. According to a recent survey13 40% of people regularly sleep less than the recommended amount. However research shows that even if you feel like you are not particularly tired, sleeping less than 7 hours a night can affect your ability to think clearly and consolidate new information, i.e. input it in your brain to be remembered later.
One study confirmed that being well rested when you learn information will help you to consolidate it, and plenty of sleep afterwards will help to strengthen those memories14. Therefore it is one of the most effective ways to improve your memory.
Meditation has been shown to alter brain activity and since our brain is always developing, long term meditation can directly affect brain volume in areas such as the frontal lobe and the hippocampus15, an area that is essential for memory consolidation. So it should come as no surprise that a review of multiple studies assessing the effects of meditation on memory confirmed that mediation benefits memory, attention and general cognitive functioning.
However, you do not need to wait for years to see any of these benefits. One study found that positive effects can be measured in beginners after just 8 weeks of practice16. In addition, meditation can lower rates of fatigue and insomnia17, so it also helps with tip number two.
4- Practice Mindfulness:
This might sound like tip number three but although they have their similarities there are also differences between meditation and mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is being aware of something (focusing on your emotions or surroundings) whereas meditation is being aware of nothing (clearing your mind of thought as much as possible).
So they are complementary mirror reflections of each other and both have proven cognitive benefits. One experiment used three separate studies to show that students who were given mindfulness training showed benefits to their episodic memory, a vital part of our long term memory18.
5- Exercise your body:
Exercise is an important part of our physical and mental wellbeing so its all round benefits cannot be overstated. Exercise reduces the risk of medical complications that impact memory, such as diabetes and dementia. It also increases the brain’s oxygen levels which helps the growth of new brain cells and neural connections.
One study found that the effects are not only long term but can also be seen almost immediately. Participants aged 19-93 completed 15 minutes of either moderate exercise or a sedentary activity. Those in the exercise group saw an immediate improvement in a working memory task19. This shows that you do not need to commit loads of time and money to a gym membership in order to see the benefits of exercise.
6- Exercise your cognitive skills:
“Brain training” appeared in recent years claiming to improve cognitive function in areas such as attention and memory, quickly gaining worldwide popularity. The evidence supporting so called “brain training” apps and websites is mixed and hotly debated, suggesting that while they definitely improve the ability to complete the brain training tasks, those effects do not necessarily generalise to everyday life20.
This may be because the brain training often focuses on a very narrow set of skills. If you exercise your brain in a wider variety of ways you will be opening it up to new experiences, making and strengthening neural connections. One study addressed this by recruiting over 4,700 people and giving some of them a cognitive training program consisting of 49 different exercises.
The control group were only given a crossword puzzle. Those who were given the comprehensive training program showed better performance in multiple aspects of memory, as well as other cognitive skills21. So what does this mean for the average person who wants to improve their memory? By all means use some brain training games, but remember that these are not effective on their own.
Engage in activities that challenge your memory and your thinking skills in general. It can be a big challenge such as trying to learn a new language or learning to play an instrument, or it can be a smaller challenge such as creating your family tree. Pick things that are not only challenging but also enjoyable because otherwise you will not continue with it in the long term.
Maintaining our old friendships and also developing new ones massively benefits our mental health and wellbeing. Research also shows that a close network of friends is associated with slower cognitive decline in old age22. This makes sense when you consider the detrimental effects of stress on the brain and the stress busting properties of having a laugh with your friends23.
You can link this tip with most of the others too. Maybe you have a friend who would like to learn mindfulness training with you or go to a “knitting for beginners” group? Perhaps you have a friend who also wants to cut down on their alcohol consumption? Whatever it is you are likely to see greater benefits if you are doing it with a friend.
These are seven proven methods to naturally improve your memory. No tricks, no expensive interventions, just some tips you can easily incorporate into your everyday life to create short term and long term benefits.