Written by Josh Horsman
“Where did I leave that”?? “Why did I come into this room”?? “What date is my sibling’s birthday”? However old you are, these are probably thoughts you have to deal with on a regular basis, right? Our memory is not perfect, whether we’re old or young, whether we have a serious cognitive condition or not. But did you know that your memory could probably be significantly better than it is?
Well it’s true! A look at the growing body scientific research into the effects of lifestyle factors on the brain quickly reveals that the choices we make on a daily basis affect the functionality of our brain. Put simply, if we make the right lifestyle choices, our brains will function more effectively and our memory will improve.
Let’s look at five specific ways we can improve our memory:
In the same way that eating lots of processed and ‘junk’ food leaves you looking and feeling worse physically, following an unhealthy diet is equally damaging for your brain.
It hinders all the everyday cognitive functions, including memory.
Conversely, research has found that certain foods and diets can improve cognitive function and therefore memory. Two diets in particular have emerged as the best for memory:
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been called the ‘world’s healthiest diet’ involves increasing your consumption of vegetables, fish and nuts, reducing your intake of red meat, sweets and white bread and use of olive oil. The diet’s nutritional benefits are derived from the high amount of plant-based proteins and promotion of healthier ‘monounsaturated’ fats over saturated fats.
A study, published in the Neurology journal found that, when measured over a 3-year period, those who stuck to the diet lost less ‘brain volume’ than those who didn’t. Brain volume is lost when the brain begins to shrink as part of the natural ageing process. Brain cells are slowly lost as part of this, and brain health and memory can be affected.
The Mind Diet
The MIND diet emerged from a study by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, where two prominent diets were combined - The mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. The researchers combined the elements of these diets which were thought to be beneficial for brain health and created the MIND diet. Some 960 participants were involved in the study, over a 5 year period, which ultimately concluded that following the MIND diet strictly decreased their likelihood of being diagnosed with Dementia by up to 52%! These results clearly add significant weight to the links between brain health and diet, and go some way towards proving that healthy eating can be a factor in preventing Dementia.
The MIND Diet itself isn’t really much of a diet at all, at least not in the same way as others you may have tried before. The diet only emerged in 2015, and so proper guidelines on how to follow the diet are still being developed. Instead the diet currently consists of a list of ‘healthy’ foods which followers are encouraged to eat, and a list of ‘unhealthy’ foods which should be avoided. See below for a full list. If following the MIND diet, you should aim to maximise your intake of the healthy foods and significantly reduce your intake of the unhealthy foods.
Research has proven beyond reasonable doubt that sleep improves the formulation and consolidation of memories. It’s not yet known exactly how this happens, but it is clear that sleep both protects new memories from being disrupted by the interference of experiences during wakefulness and also consolidates memories according to importance. This means that by consistently getting enough sleep and forming a regular pattern helps to improve your ability to recall the things that you are learning on a daily basis.
Studies have also shown that being well-rested enhances your abilities to master new tasks, forming ‘procedural memories’.
Current health guidelines suggest that you aim for between 7 and 8 hours sleep every night to maximise your brain functionality.
3. Brain Training
The fast-growing brain training industry offers hope that through regular brain games, puzzles and memory challenges, cognitive function can be improved and the effects of memory-loss reversed. While some remain sceptical about their effectiveness at improving memory and brain health, there is significant evidence that training your brain daily can improve your memory.
In 2017, a study by researchers at Cambridge University found that brain games could improve memory and brain function in those with early stage memory problems which can be a precursor to Dementia. The effects of regular brain training using software on an ipad were tested on 42 patients with mild cognitive impairment. The participants demonstrated improvements in their ‘episodic’ memory through bettering their scores by up to 40% after playing brain game two hours per week for a month. While these results are encouraging and do suggest that playing brain games regularly can improve your memory, and be especially useful if you are in the early stages of cognitive decline, further research is needed to determine how long-lasting the effects can be.
Believe it or not, regular exercise is as good for your brain as it is for your body! Not only does improving your fitness boost your brain through fighting insulin resistance and inflammation and encouraging the creation of new blood vessels and cells in the brain, but it also improves cognitive functions indirectly through helping you sleep, reducing stress and boosting your mood.
A large body of scientific research has added hard evidence to the theory, with one rigorous study by the University of California, for example, concluding that as little as 10 minutes of exercise per day may be enough to see small improvements in memory. They found that connections in the area of the brain responsible for the formation and storing of memories were strengthened after participants had completed the workouts. It is thought that these benefits would be further enhanced if you were to follow the health guidelines of 30 minutes exercise per day.
Another study at the University of British Columbia in Canada found that aerobic workouts which make you sweat and get the heart beating faster are the best kind of workouts for improving memory. These exercises led to much greater improvements in the brain function of research participants than strength & resistance training or balance exercise
5. Get Creative
As well as indirectly improving your memory with a healthy lifestyle, there are also a few tried and tested techniques that can be used when you need to remember specific things:
For workout plans, nutrition advice and health tips to help you improve your memory, try the free MindMate App!