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Having trouble remembering where you left your car keys? Have you forgotten to order your medicine? Has picking up an item from the nearby store escaped your memory? Has the appointment with your doctor that you scheduled last week totally slipped your mind?
The struggle of living with a feeble memory is very real and you are not the only one facing it. Contrary to what most people believe, memory slips are not indicative of or exclusive to old age alone. We are confronted by a flood of information on a daily basis, which can often get quite overwhelming to process, retain, and recollect.
Memory is what gives a person their identity and individuality, as without it you will not be able to learn new information, form lasting relationships, or go about your daily life functions. Your memory reserve is a malleable entity that can be built upon with every new experience and learning.
How Does Memory Work?
Whenever you encounter a new event, information, or person, your brain determines whether that information is worth retaining. The act of memorizing any information follows a 3-part process.
The first stage entails encoding or processing the information in visual, acoustic, or semantic form. This is followed by the storage of information as sensory, short-term, or long-term memory. To consolidate the information into the long-term memory, you must use it repeatedly. The final stage of the memory process involves retrieving the information stored in your brain files.
Causes of Memory Loss
Some of the common factors that can trigger memory loss and compromise your overall cognitive function include:
- Side effects of antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, sleeping pills, and pain medications
- Alcohol, tobacco, or drug use
- Sleep deprivation
- Bipolar disorder
- Too much stress and anxiety
- Nutritional deficiency, especially vitamin B1, B12, and D
- Head injury
- The underactive or overactive thyroid gland
- Infections such as HIV, tuberculosis, and syphilis
- Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions can also cause memory problems along with other symptoms.
Tips and Remedies to Improve Your Memory
You can try some natural home remedies and implement healthy lifestyle changes to enhance your memory or overcome general forgetfulness, but will need proper medical evaluation and treatment if it becomes a severe or persistent ordeal.
Here are some tips to improve your memory.
Incorporating the following lifestyle changes into your routine can work wonders in improving your memory and overall mental health.
1. Exercise daily
Regular exercise is good for your physical and mental health. Exercise helps more oxygen and nutrient-carrying blood reach the brain. Also, being physically active significantly reduces the risk of several diseases that can lead to memory loss.
According to a recent guideline released by the American Academy of Neurology, exercising twice a week can help improve thinking ability and memory in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). (1)
A study published in 2013 in Comprehensive Physiology reports that regular exercise and dietary management appear to be a noninvasive and effective strategy to counteract neurological and cognitive disorders. (2)
A 2018 study published in Neurology reports that exercising is positively associated with improved cognitive performance in older adults with and without cognitive impairment. (3)
Try to exercise at least 5 days a week. You can include different types of exercise into your daily schedule, such as cardio, high-intensity interval training, stretching, yoga, and strength training.
2. Reduce stress level
Living under too much stress is not at all good for your cognitive health. Being under stress can make it difficult to remember or recall things.
During stress, the hormone cortisol is released. This particular hormone impairs the brain’s memory process. Also, too much stress, in the long run, can destroy brain cells and damage the hippocampus, the section of the brain that forms new memories and stores old ones.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reports that long-lasting stress can impair cell communication in the brain’s learning and memory region. Even short-term stress can affect learning and memory. (4)
So, it is better to reduce your stress level. Meditation, joining a laughter class, taking a hobby, cooking, spending time amidst nature, or talking with a friend can help reduce stress.
3. Get sound sleep
Sleep deprivation can take a toll on both your physical and mental health. It is during sleep that your brain goes through a sort of review process. Disturbances in sleep can affect your brain’s ability to retain or recall information.
A 2005 study published in Neuroscience reports that a good night’s sleep triggers changes in the brain that help improve memory. (5)
Another study published in 2007 in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment reports that while total sleep deprivation can affect attention and working memory, partial sleep deprivation has a direct impact on attention, especially vigilance. (6)
So, no matter how busy your schedule is, do not ignore the importance of sleep. Try to go to bed at the same time each day and get at least 6–7 hours of sound sleep.
4. Try meditation and other methods of improving focus
Both memory and focus fall under the purview of the same neural territory in the brain. Thus, any attempt to enhance focus will inadvertently improve your memory as well. Meditation is one such practice that helps improve your focus, and it has been found to have a positive bearing on your memory. (7)
Meditation is particularly recommended for strengthening your working memory, which is the immediate short-term information that you need to access to go about your day.
This type of memory has a fairly limited capacity and does not sustain for a long period. However, it helps you to simultaneously preserve and process temporary information to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and decision making.
In a 2017 preliminary randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, meditation and listening to music was found to significantly enhance both subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance in adults with subjective cognitive decline. (8)
5. Avoid multitasking
Multitasking has become an essential life skill to keep up with the frenzied schedules that define modern times. Everyone is in a rush to get more done in less time, a feat that is often accomplished by pursuing several different activities all at once.
While this strategy may check more boxes off your to-do list, it leaves your headspace a bit muddled. You cannot expect to give your complete attention to any one task when you are thinking in all these different directions. And not everyone is adept at multitasking; in fact, most can really only pay attention to one activity at a time. (9)
When you switch your attention to different activities, it is hard to retain all the information about everything you are doing. You tend to get inundated by the multiple tasks weighing on your mind, leading to confusion, oversights, memory slips, and miscalculations.
The more you switch, the more information will fall through the cracks of your memory. (10) Prioritizing your tasks will help you avoid information overload and keep your wits about you.
6. Do mental visualization and association
Another way to build upon your memory reserve is by processing the information that you wish to remember in visual terms. Visualizing or making a mental picture involves an entirely different part of the brain from the one used for processing words.
When you read or listen, the incoming information is processed on the left side of the brain. Pictures, on the other hand, are processed on the right. You can significantly improve your cognitive memory by using both sides! (11)(12)
Associating the facts to be learned with something familiar to you makes it easier for you to remember them. Any new information that you encounter is stored in a brain file.
Recalling something you already know and threading it to the “brain file” will enable you to retain and remember the new information more efficiently.
7. Chunk complex information
Chunking involves breaking down complex information into smaller chunks or groups to make it easy to memorize.
This is perhaps the most standard and oldest memorization technique used for simplifying complicated data and committing it to memory, particularly in the case of multidigit numbers such as ID numbers and telephone numbers as well as difficult spellings.
To make this method a success, it is best that you group the data according to a meaningful pattern. The memory acquired through mindless rote learning may fade after a while, but if you form well-founded associations between each group to give order to the data, it will stick for longer. This approach will make it easier for you to learn, retain, and recollect the information.
Chunking is the most preferred option for learning complex data, especially if the order of the items to be learned is inconsequential. (13)
For instance, it may be easier to memorize a multidigit number such as 695328431 by grouping it into smaller chunks of 3-digit or 2-digit numbers: 695, 328, and 431 or as 69, 53, 28, and 431.
Similarly, a list comprising of multifarious items may be easier to remember if we form meaningful associations between the items and rearrange them accordingly.
The list that includes berries, spinach, carrots, paper, ink, cabbage, grapes, beans, stapler, and oranges can be rearranged as berries, grapes, oranges, carrots, spinach, cabbage, beans, paper, ink, stapler, grouping three fruits, four vegetables, and three stationary items together.
8. Give your brain a workout
All the information that you acquire leaves a mental footprint in the form of a neural pathway. People continue to develop millions of neural pathways over the course of their lifetime; this makes everyday cognitive functioning possible.
It is on account of these connections within your brain that you are able to process and recall information quickly, solve familiar problems, and execute habitual tasks with the least bit of mental effort.
It is very important to cultivate an inquisitive outlook if you wish to add to this stock of neural pathways. Keeping yourself from seeking new experiences and information will make your brain quite dull and worn-out.
Even though your brain is not a muscle per se, it definitely acts like one. Just like you need to flex and work out your muscles to retain their strength, you need to exercise your mental functioning, too.
It is very important to explore new avenues to keep giving your brain the stimulation it needs for optimum growth and development. To that end, you can do various brain exercises to break your routine. Your brain loves a challenge from time to time, as it helps you to use and develop new brain pathways. (14)
What makes for an ideal brain-boosting activity?
- Anything that adds to your knowledge by teaching you something new qualifies as a good brain-boosting exercise. Repeating an intellectually taxing activity that you have already mastered will only make use of the same tried-and-tested neural pathways and, therefore, will bear no fruit in this regard. It is essential that you try a brain exercise that is unchartered territory for you, as it will stimulate your mental faculties to form new brain pathways.
- A good brain exercise will only be beneficial as long as it continues to challenge your mental skills. They must engage you completely and call upon your close and undivided attention. A brain exercise that was challenging at one point but is no longer so becomes redundant once you have become good at it.
- Opt for activities that provide room for improvement and skill building. Such activities require you to start off at an amateur level and gradually work your way up as your skills improve. As you stretch your mental capabilities in order to level up, your brain gets a much-needed workout.
- It helps if the exercise becomes a rewarding experience. Rewards work as positive reinforcements to your learning process and give you the impetus to continue with the activity.
9. Quit smoking
Smoking is known to release millions of unstable oxygen molecules in the body, known as free radicals. These toxic elements wreak havoc on your brain cells in the form of oxidative stress, damaging and eventually destroying them for good. (15)(16)(17)
Thus, smoking can make your mental health dwindle more rapidly over time. In fact, if you smoke a minimum of two packs a day, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia increases to 150% and 170%, respectively. (18)
Brain-Boosting dietary changes
Nutrition is the fuel that drives the functioning of your body. A healthy wholesome diet of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats provides a wide spectrum of nutrients that can cater to the needs of the various parts of your body, including the brain.
You can rev up your brain health and boost your memory by making smart food choices.
1. Enrich your diet with omega-3 fatty acids
Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to bolster the health of your brain and aid in memory improvement. Besides, the benefits of consuming healthy fats cannot be overstated.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that is essential to sound brain function.
Fish oil supplements have been found to help improve memory and reduce cognitive decline, thanks to the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in them. The DHA found in fish oil may also help prevent the formation of brain plaques linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2010 study reports that a 24-week supplementation with 900 mg/d DHA can help improve learning and memory function in age-related cognitive decline. (19)
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging in 2014 reports that higher nut consumption may lead to better cognitive health in older people. (20)
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that those who took two 500 mg capsules containing pure ground black seed powder daily showed improved cognition, memory, and attention compared with those who took a placebo. (21)
Aside from fish oil supplements, you can also get omega-3 fatty acids from plant-based food sources such as walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds, seaweed, kidney beans, spinach, broccoli, and soybeans. These can be eaten as a vegetarian alternative to fish sources.
2. Limit saturated and trans fat
The human brain is 60% fat with half of it being the omega-3 type. This fat content is essential in building the brain cells called neurons and aids in message signaling. (22)
Healthy fats, which are mono- and polyunsaturated fats, play a role in boosting brain health and, in turn, the memory, whereas saturated and trans fat have been linked to inflammation, oxidative damage, a likelihood of dementia, and adverse effects on focus and memory.
Avoid foods rich in saturated fats and trans fat such as red meat, butter, cream, cheese, and fried foods.
3. Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
Fresh colorful fruits and vegetables are replete with antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect the brain cells from oxidative-stress-induced damage.
Fruits, particularly berries such as cherries, blueberries, and blackberries, pack loads of flavonoids and anthocyanins that may help improve memory. (23)
Include cruciferous vegetables as part of your diet to encourage the memory function. (24)
4. Drink green tea
Green tea is brimming with potent antioxidants, particularly polyphenols. These can help fight free radical damage in brain cells. (25)
A preliminary study published in 2017 in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging supported the use of decaffeinated green tea extract as a possible supplement that may help up the memory capacity of women between the ages of 50 and 63 years.
The study also stated that green tea might have potential chemopreventive benefits and improved cognitive performance in older adults. (26)
5. Consider herbal supplements
Several herbal supplements have been associated with memory improvement. Listed below are the herbal ingredients that have been reported to improve your memory when present in a supplement in a reasonable amount:
- Some food supplements have been turned down by the FDA for outlandish claims, not complying with good manufacturing practices, and withholding information pertaining to the side effects. Always check the label of the food supplement for FDA approval before taking it.
- Herbal and over-the-counter medications can have serious drug interactions with your medication regimen. Consult your doctor before adding any herbal supplementation to your daily routine.
6. Check vitamin D levels
Vitamin D levels play a vital role in cognitive function.
A study that followed 318 older adults for 5 years found that those who had blood levels of vitamin D of less than 20 ng/ml lost their memory and other cognitive abilities faster than those with normal vitamin D levels. (37)
Vitamin D deficiency is very common, especially in colder climates and in those with darker skin. Speak with your doctor about getting a blood test to find out if you need a vitamin D supplement.
When to See a Doctor
Do not take forgetfulness or short-term memory loss lightly. In fact, you must see a doctor if memory loss is interfering with your daily activities or affecting your safety level.
The reason behind memory loss can be a variety of diseases and conditions, and without treatment, the condition may become worse. Hence, it is best to consult an expert for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Memory often suffers a natural decline with advancing age. Moreover, issues such as dementia, brain trauma, and persistent stress can impair your memory function a great deal.
While age, illness, and injury are obvious contributors to failing memory, it is just as normal for healthy young adults to suffer occasional memory glitches as well. The treatment for memory loss depends on the cause. In some cases, it may be reversible with treatment.