Have you ever found yourself wondering where you’ve left your keys or staring at the supermarket shelves trying to remember what you needed? I often get halfway through introducing myself to someone and realize that I’ve already forgotten their name. Everyone has odd moments of forgetfulness. This can be made worse if you are distracted, preoccupied, or tired and it gradually gets worse with age. But it’s not too late!
Just as regular exercise and a balanced diet can improve your physical health, recent research has shown that there are lots of small changes you can make to improve your memory. There is an extensive connection between physical and mental health, so what you eat and drink actually has a big influence on our mental capabilities, including our memory. Making time to relax is also really important, both physically and mentally. Particularly for those of us with hectic schedules, sleep and mindfulness techniques can work wonders on our stress levels and overall mental health.
We all know that overeating sugar and fatty foods can affect our physical health, but your diet can also heavily impact your mental well-being. There is increasing evidence that eating too much sugar has adverse effects on cognitive processes such as attention, memory and learning. For example, one study found that people with high-sugar Western diets had reduction functioning of the hippocampus Jacka et al. (2015) . The hippocampus is the brain region involved in forming new memories and retrieving old ones. Therefore, a reduction in function in this brain region can affect the formation of long-term memories.
It’s not just about avoiding foods; you should also consider which foods will be best for boosting your memory. Recent research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are particularly useful for maintaining brain health, even in older adults. One study tested people aged between 50-75 years and found that those taking an omega-3 supplement scored better on memory tests than those taking a placebo  Kulzow et al., 2016 . Another review study found that omega-3 acids increased the number of neuronal synapses in the brains of older adults  Cutuli (2017) . Synapses are the gaps between neurons (brain cells). By releasing neurotransmitters into these gaps, different neurons in the brain can communicate and information can be integrated. This suggests that increasing your omega-3 intake can help to boost your overall brain health and memory scores. Fish is a particularly good source of omega-3, but you can also find it in walnuts, kidney and pinto beans, spinach, broccoli and pumpkin seeds.
Stress and anxiety can hurt our brains and overall well-being. If you are stressed or particularly anxious, your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This helps your body to focus on the stressful event and suppresses other functions, such as digestion. In the short-term, this can help us to deal with stressful or anxiety-provoking events. But, after the stressful situation passes, your body returns back to its normal state. If you feel constantly stressed, your body’s fight or flight response can stay on and this can disrupt many of your bodily functions.
Over time this chronic stress can damage brain cells in the hippocampus. Practices like yoga or meditation can be relaxing and mindful and can help to reduce long-term stress and chronic pain. Recently it has even been found that regular yoga or meditation can help to improve memory. As you age, the gray matter in your brain starts to decline. The gray matter contains the neuron cell bodies and includes regions of the brain associated with memory. Meditation and relaxation techniques have been shown to increase the amount of gray matter in the brain and, in turn, improve short-term memory. One study found that over 8 weeks, just 13 minutes of daily meditation helped to reduce anxiety and increase mood and memory scores  Basso et al 2019 .
For many years lack of sleep has been associated with poor memory capabilities. Sleep is really important for memory consolidation – where short-term memories are strengthened and converted into long-term memories. During slow-wave sleep, your memories are replayed and this helps to transform memories to your long-term stores  Klinzing et al., 2019 . So, getting a good night’s sleep before a big exam may be the best way to revise!
Strategic naps have also been found to boost memory scores. One study found that taking a half-hour nap in between learning a set of cards and recalling the cards significantly improved memory compared to staying awake in between – nappers remember 85% of the cards compared to 60% for non-nappers  Walker & Stickgold 2010 . However, regular napping can affect your night-time sleeping patterns, so it’s essential to strike a healthy balance!
Drink Less Alcohol
Alcohol consumption has always been a controversial topic in the media. Some research has suggested that an occasional glass of red wine can have some health benefits, but it has also been found that drinking too much alcohol can harm your health and memory. Alcohol slows down the release of neurotransmitters in regions of the brain, making it more difficult for neurons to communicate. In this short-term, this can cause ‘blackouts’ where people forget what happened on an evening when they drink too much.
Instead of just slowing down neurons in the hippocampus, long-term drinking can start to damage it, resulting in a general decline in memory. A study of 155 college students found that those who had six or more drinks on a weekly basis scored more poorly on both immediate and delayed memory tests  Carbia et al., 2017 . This suggests that cutting down on your alcohol intake can help to boost your memory.
Although many people believe that alcohol can help you to sleep better, a review of 27 studies actually showed that drinking alcohol close to bedtime does help you get to sleep quicker but affects the quality of your sleep  Ebrahim 2013 . It can mean you have a more disruptive sleep, particularly in the second half of the night. So, skipping that extra drink could help to improve both your memory and your night’s sleep.
Many of these small memory-boosting changes can also have a significant impact on your general well-being. With our busy lives, we can often forget to take time to exercise or practice mindfulness techniques even though they are beneficial for our mental and physical health. By taking the time to add these healthy daily habits into our routine, it’s not just our memory that will benefit. Extensive research has associated a balanced diet, exercise and mindfulness to better mental health and overall happiness.
Adding some of these small changes to your routine can really lead to a happier and healthier lifestyle, and give you back the time you would have spent searching for your keys! Share these tips with your friends and family so we can all improve our mental and physical health.