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6 Science-Backed Ways to Boost Your Memory

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Daniel Lew, M.D.
July 25, 2022

It’s perfectly normal to experience brief memory loss now and then. We’ve all forgotten where we’ve put something or not immediately remembered somebody’s name, right?

But, with age and certain medical conditions, memory loss might become more of an issue, says Vernon Williams, M.D., a sports neurologist, pain management specialist, and the founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

“Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are among the age-related memory disorders that can have a debilitating effect on a person’s quality of life,” Williams says. On the other hand, some health conditions, such as diabetes, thyroid disease, depression, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and autoimmune disorders like psoriatic arthritis, may lead to a lack of mental clarity (often described by people as brain fog), which can affect memory.

The good news is: There’s plenty you can do right now to maintain or enhance your memory function, so you can remember where you left your keys.

Ditch Refined Sugar

While eating natural sugars, such as those found in fruits and dairy products, is beneficial to the brain and body, eating refined sugars has been linked to numerous health issues, and research shows that regularly eating a high amount of sugar can lead to poor memory and reduce brain volume in the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Refined sugars can be found in sodas, candy, ice cream, and pastries.

One study of more than 4,000 people, published in Alzheimers Dementia, found that those who consumed one or more sugary beverages (such as soda) per day had lower total brain volume and poorer memory, on average, compared to people with a lower sugar consumption.

Take Fish Oil Supplements

Watching what you eat is one of the simplest ways to boost your memory and overall cognitive function, says Mithila Fadia, M.D., a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital in Illinois.

Instead of sugary beverages and snacks, aim to boost your intake of omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which have been shown to slow mental decline.

Fish oil is one of the best sources of omega-3s, but you don’t have to pile salmon or mackerel on your plate at every meal. A review of 28 studies published in PLOS ONE showed that when adults with mild symptoms of memory loss took 1,000 mg supplements of EPA and DHA daily, they reported enhanced memory.

Keep Busy

Go ahead and make some upcoming plans. Being busy may actually improve your memory, and taking part in different activities is mentally stimulating.

In a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 330 healthy men and women ages 50 to 80 took part in a range of mental tests and answered questions about their daily schedules. Regardless of age or education, the busiest people had the healthiest brains, according to researchers. Remember, though, that pushing yourself too hard can have the opposite effect and lead to mental exhaustion, stress, and anxiety, which have negative effects on memory—so don’t be so busy that you don’t have time for rest and relaxation.

Exercise Consistently

Speaking of exercise, experts believe that mental health is closely connected to physical health. Studies have shown that physically active people have a lower risk of mental decline and of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Make daily physical activity a priority. It optimizes blood flow to the entire body, brain included,” Williams explains. “Adequate blood and oxygen supply to the brain helps keep our memories sharp.”

Also, exercise has been shown to increase brain cells and the connections between them. And exercise can reduce stress and anxiety, which, in turn, can lead to improved memory.

To get the most brain-boosting bang for your buck, Williams recommends aiming for a minimum of 30 minutes of heart-pumping cardiovascular exercise (such as running, power walking, swimming, or cycling) most days of the week.

If you prefer something less strenuous, the Chinese martial art tai chi, which consists of slow, focused movements, has been shown to enhance cognitive function in older adults. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that tai chi had the potential to enhance executive function, which manages cognitive processes such as attention, problem solving, and working memory.

Play Brain Games

Just like exercising regularly will keep your muscles strong, exercising your brain regularly can help with memory. Keeping the brain active with mentally stimulating activities may increase brain cells and the connections between them, which may lead to improved memory. Fadia recommends playing brain games daily as another simple—and fun—way to improve memory. The good news is that there’s a huge range of games dedicated to memory training, including crossword puzzles and word-recall games, and they can all be found on mobile apps.

In fact, a study of 42 adults with mild cognitive impairment, published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, found that playing games on a brain-training app for eight hours over a four-week period improved the participants’ performance in memory tests.

Another large study, published in PLOS ONE, found that when a group of people spent 15 minutes on an online brain-training program at least five days a week, they experienced greater improvement in short-term memory and working memory (as well as concentration and problem-solving) compared to a control group.

You can also challenge your brain (and improve memory function) by learning things, says Williams, which is a great excuse to try out a new hobby.

“You don’t have to confine this learning to formal education inside a classroom, either,” he says. “Any new skill or way of doing something helps the brain grow, maintains the health of brain cells, and stimulates them to communicate better with each other—all essential processes for memory to function correctly.”

Sleep Well

It might seem counterintuitive, but one of the most fundamental ways to keep your brain functioning correctly and sharply is to turn it off for seven to nine hours every day.

“Powering down on a nightly basis allows the brain to heal and restore itself,” Williams explains. “Your brain does its essential ‘housekeeping’ via memory consolidation during your body’s deep-sleep state.”

The quality of sleep is important to improve memory. It’s important to have slow-wave sleep within the first few hours of sleep, and then REM sleep, which commonly happens after three to four hours of sleep. Slow-wave sleep consolidates memory and REM sleep stabilizes it. This is why a consistent lack of quality sleep can be associated with a steeper memory decline as a person gets older, Williams adds. You should prioritize quality sleep as you would a healthy diet and daily exercise.

A study published in PLOS ONE looked at the effects of sleep in 40 children ages 10 to 14. One group of children was trained for memory tests in the evening and tested again the following morning, after a night’s sleep. Those kids performed 20 percent better on the tests than another group, which had no sleep between training and testing on the same day.

While making positive lifestyle changes can boost memory, consistent trouble remembering things could be a sign of an underlying issue. If you don’t feel like you can manage your memory issues, check in with your doctor.

“Memory problems can become a cause of concern when day-to-day functioning is affected or when there is a decline in the level of functioning compared to before,” Fadia says.

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