Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
7 min read
We all forget things sometimes. As we age, especially, we may start to experience some mild memory loss. Fortunately, the brain can make new cells at any age and there are steps we can take to boost and protect our memories.
As always, you should consult a medical professional if you are concerned about how memory loss is affecting your life.
In mild cases, memory loss tends to occur naturally as you age. You may start to misplace items or start needing to rely on lists and calendars more often to keep up with your tasks and appointments.
Other, more severe forms of memory loss can occur from head injury and trauma. You should talk to your health care provider for support if this is something you experienced.
There are many changes that happen in the body that can contribute to mild memory loss. With age, certain parts of the brain responsible for memories such as the hippocampus may shrink over time. Decreased blood flow to the brain can impact memory as well. Lastly some research has noted a decreased number of hormones that regulate the maintenance of brain health may decline with age.
In much the same way that exercising your body can improve overall health for your body, exercising your brain has been shown to improve cognitive functioning. You can even have some fun with it, incorporating brain-testing games like crossword puzzles and word-recall activities into your routine. Some other brain exercises could include: learning a new skill, learning a new language, and doing something with your non-dominant hand.
Studies on this matter are promising. One study of 42 adults found that subjects who played games on a brain-training app for eight hours over a four-week period ended up showing improvement in memory tests. And another study, this one of 4,715 subjects, found that those who performed fifteen minutes of an online brain-testing program at least five days a week showed improvements in: problem-solving, working memory, short term memory, and concentration.
Some daily physical activity is essential to your brain health and memory. A recent study showed that as you age, your resting cerebral blood flow (CBF) declines, making it that much more important to stimulate blood flow through exercise. The study found that older adults who managed to increase their CBF ended up with better brain health and cognitive functioning. It also found that an increase in the blood flow to the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with memory – led to better spatial memory among these older adults.
We all enjoy spending time with our friends. What you may not realize, though, is that spending time socializing is also great for your mental health and cognitive function, including memory. A recent medically reviewed study of mice by researchers from Ohio State University demonstrated this finding. The researchers used mice aged 15-18 months, which is around the time mice begin to show cognitive decline. Some of the mice were made to live in groups of up to five other mice, while the others were simply put in pairs. The study showed that the mice who lived in groups, and were thus subjected to more complex and more frequent social interactions, demonstrated the ability to use their memories with greater success than the paired-up mice.
So, for you, the path to a better memory may be as simple as spending more time with friends. This is especially so for older adults.
Studies have consistently demonstrated the connection between memory and sleep. A process known as memory consolidation, which is how the mind preserves important memories and gets rid of excessive information, occurs throughout your sleep cycle. That’s why it’s so much harder to learn new information and consolidate new memories when you’re sleep deprived. We know how hard it can be to get enough sleep when the tasks just keep piling up. But if you can at least take small steps toward getting quality sleep – with a focus on gradual improvement – it may do wonders for your memory.
When you are feeling stressed or anxious, your brain produces cortisol. In short bursts, cortisol can actually sharpen your brain health and improve your memory. Problems arise, though, if your stress becomes chronic – that’s when your heightened cortisol level can start to have the opposite effect. Stress can affect you in other ways, too. As discussed above, getting quality sleep is important to forming new memories, but we all know what it’s like when you’re trying to go to sleep while feeling stressed out. In other words, your stress can have ripple effects into other areas of your health and wellness. Consider talking to a mental health professional if your stress is feeling like more than you can manage. You can also consider working some meditation into your routine, which has been shown to help manage stress levels.
Researchers have found that a healthy diet can reduce the risk of memory loss.
One step you can take is to try to cut back on sugar. Studies have shown that too much sugar in your diet can reduce your brain’s capacity to form short term memories. One study of more than 4,000 people found that people who drank a lot of sugary soda had lower total brain volumes and worse memories on average than those who consumed less sugar.
Another step you can take is to consider the amount of omega-3 fats, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), you’re consuming. In addition to other health benefits, these fats have been shown to support brain health.
To get your dose of omega-3 fats, you may want to consider a fish oil supplement. Fish oil supplements are rich in EPA and DHA. Furthermore, a review of 28 studies found that adults who consumed fish and fish oil supplements showed improved episodic memory.
You may also want to consider whether you could benefit from consuming more adaptogens, which may support memory. American ginseng, for example, has been shown in one study to support the spatial memory, working memory, and cognitive function of middle-aged adults. Other adaptogens you might want to try include: ashwagandha, which supports memory and cognitive function; rhodiola, which promotes mental energy and focus; and ginkgo, which helps with concentration and boosts mental clarity.
And, while we’re on the topic of supplements, we should mention vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 has been shown to support cognitive health, and may therefore support memory, too. All in all, a healthy diet – and perhaps the incorporation of some adaptogens – can go a long way toward improving your memory.
In recent years, we’ve seen mindfulness-based interventions become increasingly popular as a way of boosting cognitive functioning and mental health. With regard to memory, studies have shown some mixed results. One recent study found that while meditation boosted the subjects’ attention and executive control, it didn’t have an appreciable impact on working memory. That said, another study – this one from the National Institutes of Health – did find that for newcomers to meditation, getting into a meditation routine boosted hippocampal functioning and working memory. In any event, meditation is a good idea. If you can work it into your schedule, even starting in short intervals (try five minutes to start!), you’re likely to see improvements in your mood and cognitive function.
It turns out that trying to take good care of your physical health also results in sharper cognitive function and a greater capacity for forming and preserving memories. Studies show that managing a healthy weight can improve performance on memory tests, promote healthy blood sugar levels, and protect memory-associated genes in the brain. We know how challenging it can be to maintain a healthy weight when you’re trying to juggle all the tasks that comprise your life. Who has time to prepare a healthy meal and get to the gym? But you can always start small and work your way up.
Drinking too much alcohol can play a role in negatively affecting your memory. A study of 155 college first-years showed that students who binge drank – defined as having six or more drinks within a short period of time, either weekly or monthly – struggled with immediate and delayed memory-recall tests, compared to those students who didn’t binge drink. Furthermore, frequent binge drinking has been shown to harm the hippocampus, which is a vitally important part of the brain for memory.
Many of us enjoy a drink from time to time. But if you want to protect and improve your memory, make sure you’re drinking in moderation.