In addition to helping us learn new things, memory helps us interact with others, understand our emotions and make greater sense of events in our lives. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to function in daily life.
Still, there are many factors that cause people to become more forgetful. Sometimes, this includes lifestyle choices like diet and exercise. Other times, hereditary illness, injury or age threaten our ability to remember important aspects of life. This leaves many people wondering: Is there a way to improve memory?
While much remains to be learned about the brain and cognitive enhancement, the answer is a resounding yes. Countless studies have shown that memory can indeed be improved through key lifestyle changes and nutrition(1). Here’s a look at why memory decline is so prominent — plus a look at simple, effective changes that can improve memory.
Memory is maintained through neural pathways in the brain, which are triggered by neurotransmitters. These chemicals have different roles in the body, delivering important messages that help you protect yourself from danger and enact important functions like eating and sleeping.
Certain neurotransmitters, like Acetylcholine (ACH) and Glutamate, are specifically involved in the role of memory. When imbalances in these and other neurotransmitters arise, memory is disrupted. Neurotransmitter imbalances can occur due to a wide range of reasons, but nutrition, genetics, daily habits and age all play a role.
Memory loss(2) can also be caused by a head injury, a traumatic event, post-traumatic stress disorder, vitamin deficiencies (specifically B-12) or an underactive thyroid. Not all memory-related challenges can be controlled, especially when it comes to Alzheimer’s Disease or an accident that affects the brain irreversibly.
Still, understanding the core signs of memory loss can help you learn when it might be time to make a change, and how to move forward.
It isn’t easy to admit that you or a loved one is losing their memory(3). However, acknowledging a potential problem is essential for getting help. Someone might be struggling with memory if they:
These signs may suggest that someone is struggling with age and lifestyle-related cognitive decline. When Alzheimer’s has been ruled out through a series of tests by a licensed medical practitioner, it’s important to take your memory into your own hands. The following steps are important both for mitigating existing memory loss and preventing future instances of forgetfulness.
One of the best ways to keep your brain healthy is to eat nourishing foods. Few foods are more powerful at sharpening your mind than berries. Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are particularly potent because they contain anthocyanins — plant compounds that help heal and prevent disease.
Specifically, anthocyanins have been shown to increase activity in the areas of the brain responsible for memory regulation. The positive effects of blueberries on memory were proven in a study on older adults experiencing early memory decline(4). Daily blueberry consumption improved both learning and recall in this group, suggesting that consuming wild blueberries and blueberry products can help reduce instances of age-related memory loss.
Other berries that can help the brain include blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. Incorporate these healthy foods into your diet by adding them into smoothies, incorporating them into your breakfasts or eating them as an afternoon snack.
Meditation and mindful living are increasingly popular, and new research shows that the hype is justified. In one study on the role of mindfulness in memory, participants demonstrated a decrease in distracted thoughts and an increase in overall memory retention. This suggested that just two weeks of intentional mindfulness has the potential to greatly improve both memory and focus, which can elevate one’s ability to succeed at work and school.
Similar results were echoed in a four-week mindfulness training(5) program. Participants experienced improved activity in the hippocampus as well as a reduction in proactive interference — a phenomenon that occurs when old memories interfere with the storage of new information.
To start your own mindfulness practices, find ways to stay present in daily life. This might include:
Mindfulness isn’t just about meditating, though getting started with a meditation app or podcast is a great way to cultivate calm. Being mindful is about slowing down, staying open to possibility and accepting both your own feelings and circumstances and those of others.
We all know that exercise is good for your body — but can it also be good for your brain?
A study from Canadian researchers found that a regimen of weekly aerobic exercise, like running, hiking or cycling, can improve activity in the hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for memory and emotion). Since the hippocampus is particularly sensitive to age-related decline, this study suggests that weekly cardio sessions can maintain brain strength(6) and ward off memory-loss, even as the years pass.
In comparison, people have also demonstrated strong memory improvements(7) after just ten minutes of light exercise. While it remains unclear which exercises are best for the brain, it’s evident that physical activity of any kind can increase hippocampus activity and improve memory.
Find an exercise you like and commit to it at least three times a week for a minimum of ten minutes each time. Creating this routine can boost your memory while also amping up feel-good endorphins that keep you happy and alert.
Humans have engineered a bounty of synthetic cognitive enhancers, but some of the most powerful natural nootropics still come from plants. Natural nootropics are organic substances proven to elevate memory and focus, among a range of other benefits.
While nature is host to many brain-boosting plants, one of the most effective nootropics for memory include Ginkgo biloba. Studies have shown that this herb can help improve memory recall(8) by increasing the number of things remembered, and how often. It has also been shown to decrease the psychological and behavioral signs of dementia(9)when taken consistently over the course of 22 weeks.
Rhodiola rosea is another natural nootropic that has been proven to boost learning and memory directly. Moreover, it has been shown to improve sleep(10) (which is essential for optimum memory function) by decreasing anxiety and stress.
Another popular supplement isashwagandha. This nootropic is known for improving cognition and memory, even among people who have experienced traumatic injury.
Ginkgo biloba, Rhodiola rosea, ashwagandha, and other natural nootropics can be consumed in the form of supplement pills, extracts and teas. When searching for nootropics, be sure to search for organic, whole and ethically-sourced herbs.
While plant-derived foods like blueberries and Ginkgo biloba can help us stay sharp, processed foods and those high in fat and sugar may have the opposite effect. Highly processed foods can be bad for the brain primarily because they’re filled with toxins and unnatural compounds that cause inflammation.
For example, many processed, fried and fast foods contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, which manifest as trans fats in the body. Elaidic acid is one example of a trans fatty acid that’s dangerous for the brain. People who eat a diet high in such foods have higher levels of elaidic acid in their blood, which puts them at a higher risk for developing dementia(11) and Alzheimer's disease.
Reduce your intake of elaidic acid by making brain-healthy food choices, such as:
The simplest way to reduce your intake of trans fats is to stay away from them, and opt for healthier choices instead.
In addition to helping our physical bodies with cell recovery and restoration, sleep is vital for the compartmentalization of important information gleaned throughout the day. Regardless of how much you’re learning, lack of quality sleep will prevent your brain from remembering it well.
Collectively, the differentstages of sleep assist the brain in organizing old memories, consolidating recent information and retaining new ideas. For example, slow-wave sleep (SWS) prepares the body to retain fresh information while helping to process it afterward(12). Sleep also plays a vital role in maintaining declarative memory — a form of long-term memory that allows us to explicitly recall facts(13).
Improve your sleep with the following simple steps:
These choices can help you sleep better and longer to strengthen your memory and overall brain health.
We all struggle with forgetfulness from time to time, but chronic memory impairment can be a serious impediment to daily life. The good news is that many instances of memory loss are due to lifestyle factors, which can easily be improved. Staying active, prioritizing sleep and calm, and being mindful about food choices are all ways that you can help you remember better, both now and in the future.
Michelle Polizzi - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice