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How to improve memory

Jane Collins
Article written by Jane Collins

Date published 09 February 2024

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Many of us get more forgetful as we get older, but lifestyle changes, memory techniques and supplements can help.

Having a good memory is essential for so many aspects of our everyday lives. Our memories also shape our sense of self, so it's not surprising that losing our memory is one of our greatest fears.

Forgetful – or more serious memory loss?

Minor lapses of memory are not unusual as we get older, and for most of us they are not the start of dementia, says the Alzheimer's Society.

The Society provides a number of examples on its website – for instance, misplacing things from time to time, but being able to retrace your steps to find the items, would be classed as a common sign of ageing. However, putting objects in unusual places – for example putting your house keys in the bathroom cabinet, could be a possible sign of Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.

If you or a relative recognise any unusual memory changes, speak to your GP as soon as possible.

How does the brain make memories?

As you sleep, the hippocampus (a part of the brain which is crucial for the formation of new memories, as well as being responsible for spatial memory and for moving information from short-term to long-term memory) takes part in an intricate form of communication with the neocortex region.

During slow-wave sleep (the point at which your body is in its most restful stage), the hippocampus replays recent events and hippocampal neurons that were active during those events are reactivated. The events are replayed over and over and stored in the neocortex (a part of the brain that processes sensory input.)

This activity only occurs when you are sleeping, which means if you are not getting enough sleep your brain is unlikely to be effectively consolidating your memories and you are more likely to forget things.

The different types of memory
  • Short-term memory. Most of us tend to use this to refer to things that have happened recently, in the last month or day, for example, but experts point out it is far more fleeting and typically lasts between 15 and 30 seconds.
  • Long-term memory. These are formed when neurons (nerve cells) form new physical connections with synapses (tiny gaps between neurons which allow a signal to pass from one neuron to another). This forms a new, permanent memory. This connection endures whether you use it or not.
  • Implicit and explicit memories. These are types of long-term memories. Implicit memories include habits and skills you remember automatically, like writing or driving. Explicit memories are things we are consciously aware of and are intentionally trying to remember.
  • Episodic and semantic memories. These are types of explicit memories. Episodic memories involve things and events that have happened to you and semantic memories involve general knowledge.

7 ways to improve memory

Aside from regular, good-quality sleep, other factors that can help improve your recall include:

1. Exercise

Sustained exercise helps to encourage the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and protect new brain cells from damage. Being active also increases your heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine have found that people with poor fitness levels in their 40s had significantly lower brain volumes by 60. Decreased brain volume is often associated with brain atrophy and is thought to lead to problems with thinking clearly, memory and difficulty performing everyday tasks.

Exercise is also more likely to help you sleep better, and therefore allow your brain to consolidate your memories more effectively. Likewise, it also helps to manage stress – which in turn can have a detrimental effect on memory.

2. Mental stimulation

Increasing evidence suggests that continued learning over the course of your life helps to keep you mentally stimulated – and thereby fend off the cognitive decline that can occur when we're not exposed to anything new.

How you stimulate your grey matter is up to you; it can involve doing something challenging like learning a new language (and there is evidence to show that speaking more than one language delays the onset of memory problems caused by dementia), or something more creative.

As Chartered Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explains, "Research shows that dance, storytelling and video game playing enhances memory, particularly visuospatial short-term memory in the latter."

3. Repeat yourself

Repetition reinforces the connections we create between neurons, so repeat what you hear out loud, or write it down and go back and look at it later.

Repetition also helps you to remember names and faces, so when you are introduced to someone repeat their name back to them and continue to use it throughout the conversation.

4. Create a 3D memory

One tactic of memory champions is that they don't rely on just one sense to help them cement memories – they relate it to others (like colour, taste and smell) to create more of a three-dimensional memory.

For example, when trying to commit the name of a particular plant or flower to memory, try to 'store' its colour and particular scent as well as its name.

To make retrieving your memory easier still, there is evidence to suggest that physically going back to where you made that memory will help you remember.

5. Eat brain food

A Mediterranean diet has been shown to protect the brain, and research reveals that those who ate a Med diet, with its high intake of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, herbs, extra virgin olive oil, lean meat and fresh fish, in combination with regular exercise, cut their risk of Alzheimer's by up to 40 per cent.

What makes fish – particularly oily or fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines – so beneficial for vascular or brain health is its omega 3 essential fatty acid content. New US research has shown that eating just one portion of salmon a week in middle age slashes the risk of memory loss. Those who did so also had a larger hippocampus – the region of the brain linked to memory.

6. Use less tech

Instead of going straight to Google or Alexa, try to access that information yourself from your memory – in doing so, you can help reinforce and strengthen the neural pathways in your brain.

Similarly, some brain experts suggest that relying on your GPS every time you go for a drive is not necessarily good for your memory. Researchers have shown that relying on navigation devices like this can shrink parts of the hippocampus. Try using it on your outward journey and then trying to remember the way home without it.

7. Stay hydrated

Your brain is made up mostly of water and even very mild dehydration (which probably doesn't even register to you as thirst) has been shown to cause brain shrinkage and memory impairment.

Where did I put my keys?

If you are always losing your car keys, Barry Reitman, author of Secrets, Tips and Tricks of a Powerful Memory suggests when you put them down imagine you are dropping them into a glass of milk.

As you drop them into the imaginary glass, imagine that milk splashing onto the surface where you dropped your keys – that way you build a picture to help you better remember where you left them.

Supplements to help support memory

Nootropics

These are part of a broad category of drugs and supplements that help support brain health. Studies have found that Ginkgo biloba, for example, can improve memory and cognitive ability.

Bacopa monnieri was also found to improve word recall memory scores in the over 65s compared to a placebo treatment.

Turmeric

Curcumin is a potent antioxidant with anti-inflammatory effects. Although more research is needed, some studies suggest that turmeric may be effective at boosting memory and preventing cognitive decline.

Omega 3

This essential fatty acid appears to support blood flow to the brain. Proper blood flow supports memory and reduces the risk of cognitive decline. This study suggests that omega 3 found in fish oil can protect against Alzheimer's disease.

B vitamins

These play a key role in brain health, and without a steady intake through our diet (we don't store them in the body) we can be at a higher risk of cognitive decline, including memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.

There is also some initial research suggesting that taking omega 3 in tandem with B vitamins may slow the progression of brain shrinkage in those exhibiting early Alzheimer's symptoms.

This study suggests that low folate may be linked to increased risk of dementia in older adults.

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Jane Collins

About Jane Collins

Jane Collins is a journalist, author and editor specialising in women's health, psychological health and nutrition. She has more than 25 years' experience of writing for UK publications including Top Sante, Men's Health, Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard.