Many of us want to improve memory for many reasons – to get more out of life, move ahead in jobs, ace exams, counter memory loss that comes with old age or brain disease, etc. This article explains evidence-based tips to boost memory, improve cognitive brain-health, delay cognitive decline & memory loss, and improve specific aspects of memory that matter in day-to-day life.
Key terms in this article
- Cognition: Mental processes that build knowledge, thoughts, and perception.
- Cognitive decline: The gradual drop in cognitive functions like memory, attention, decision-making, recognition, learning, etc. that usually comes with age or brain diseases.
- Cognitive impairment: A disruption in everyday cognitive functions that leads to confusion, memory loss, knowledge, and concentration. It is usually a precursor to dementia.
- Neurogenesis: Growth of new neurons in the brain.
- Synaptic plasticity: Growth of new neural connections called synapses in the brain. Synaptic plasticity is the main biological aspect of forming new memories.
- Working memory: Our temporary memory used for things like remembering OTPs & phone numbers.
- Declarative memory: Our long-term memory storage for experiences, language, events, and knowledge.
- Episodic memory: A subset of Declarative memory that stores events and experiences.
- Visuospatial memory: A fundamental dimension of memory that organizes information by location in space.
Read this to understand the different types and mechanisms of human memory. You might also enjoy this article on neurogenesis & synaptic plasticity. If you aren’t clear about what cognition, memory, attention, learning, etc. means, you can read this for a more detailed story.
1. Have sex and stay connected to people
Frequent sex and emotional closeness with a partner can offer much more than good orgasms. Evidence suggests those who have frequent sex, especially older adults, can also enjoy better episodic memory (memory for experiences & events in life). Without friendships, sexual satisfaction, or groups to belong to, overall mental health can decline and that, too, could worsen memory. Research also shows that higher memory loss could create additional loneliness 4 years later.
Connect with people who share your knowledge, opinions, and experiences too. In a small study, researchers asked people who didn’t have others who shared their opinions and people who had others that shared their opinions to perform a few memory tasks. Those who didn’t have like-minded people around did worse than those who had like-minded people around. This study suggests that the ability to remember things you know and others know correctly is partly related to social connectedness where knowing others who share your knowledge can solidify your own memory. This is related to a broader social concept of memory called transactive memory.
Social support is also a protective factor for age-related cognitive decline as well as Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Having friends and developing a healthy social network can be a good strategy to prevent any acceleration to future memory loss.
Tip: Take effort to stay socially connected in ways you like. Make friends, find like-minded people, and don’t stay sexually frustrated.
2. Sleep well
Sleep enough to feel rested for better cognitive functioning like memory, decision-making, learning ability, and attention intact. Sleep affects most aspects of memory. Although this is one of the most common and seemingly trivial suggestion, the importance of sleep in healthy cognitive aging cannot be understated. Maintaining good sleep hygiene is the first, most significant step to improve memory. Sleep, by itself, starts a number of biological processes that refines and enhances declarative memory. As we sleep, our brain consolidates memories (converts new learning into long-term memory) and promotes related synaptic plasticity.
Tip: Take effort to sleep well and avoid a long-term sleep debt.
3. Eat well
Eat your plants, grains, and fruits: Flavonoids are present in fruits, veggies, roots, wine, tea, stems, and grains. Growing research suggests dietary flavonoids can enhance memory function by protecting vulnerable neurons. Flavonoids (a metabolite) promote the growth of neurotrophins via specific gene expressions in the brain. Neurotrophins are involved in Long-term Potentiation which is the mechanism by which our brain stores memories. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a special Neurotrophin, promotes synaptic plasticity which is essentially the brain’s overall capacity to remember and learn.
Consume fibers: A high fiber diet can potentially help neurons regenerate and counter degeneration. Our gut microbiome can produce a helpful chemical called Butyrate that promotes neurogenesis by fermenting carbohydrates when we consume fiber-rich foods like strawberries, carrots, avocadoes, apples, bananas, lentils, and kidney beans.
Try soya in your diet: Soya-based foods show promising boosts to long-term and short-term memory. However, soya might not enhance other aspects of cognition like attention and mental flexibility.
Avoid excess sugars, carbs, and fats: Sugar-rich high-calorie foods is not only a cause for obesity and type 2 diabetes, it is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Limiting processed sugars and calorie control can reduce this risk. According to an animal study, high cholesterol and saturated fat can impair memory. A review of research proposes that a high-fat diet can directly and indirectly via obesity impair brain function. Another review suggests Diets high in refined carbs may worsen brain health and memory much before weight-gain. However, according to the review, most aspects of memory deteriorate after long-term consumption of refined carbs.
Consume Vitamin B-12, Omega-3, and Folate/Folic acid: Research shows that Folic acid is important for episodic memory and slowing down memory decline. Vitam B-12 & B-6 are also important to maintain cognitive functioning. Omega 3 fatty acids which are typically found in fish (also a popular supplement) may improve memory in people with memory complaints as well as healthy older adults.
Tip: Eat a balanced diet with a variety of veggies, fruits, and vitamins. Avoid long-term habitual intake of sugary cold drinks and refined carbs.
4. Exercise enough
Try to do a few hours of aerobic exercise per week. A review of many studies shows that:
- Midlife exercise can reduce the risk of developing brain diseases like dementia that compromise memory functions.
- 6-12 months of regular aerobic exercise increases the connectivity between different networks in the brain associated with memory & cognition.
- Exercise in old age can improve memory function by increasing the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region critical to memory).
Aerobic exercise is a well-documented “neuroprotective” factor – it defends against age-related memory decline, counters disease-related memory decline, and improves base-line memory. The best way to ensure exercise boosts memory is to consistently do physical activity that slightly raises the heart rate & increases the need for oxygen. This approach also leads to better cardiovascular health.
Tip: Do aerobic exercises or activities like walking, running, swimming, and team sports a few times a week and do it consistently over a lifetime.
5. Be confident in your learning capacity
Internalize the idea that the brain can physically change itself to help you remember even after 90 years of age. Knowing this is enough to not lose confidence because of any mental barrier that can build with age & experience. One such barrier to avoid is the Einstellung Effect – Rigid & limited ways of thinking can hamper future problem-solving & mental flexibility.
Keep your confidence in your memory ability realistically high (not overly optimistic). Research suggests there is a modest positive link between memory self-efficacy (your confidence in your memory abilities) and actual memory capacity. So believing in your capacity to remember is linked to actual memory performance. Let others have high standards for you. The Pygmalion effect – High expectations can lead to improved performance – can affect how well you demonstrate your memory abilities.
Tip: Remind yourself that you can always learn and improve at any age and your confidence in your memory affects your memory.
6. Learn a musical instrument and don’t give up easily
Music engages many regions of the brain and it promotes massive neural plasticity (the brain’s to rewire & optimize itself). Scientists believe that this engagement can transfer certain cognitive boosts to long-term & short-term memory. Music, as a lifestyle activity, can also help people counter age-related memory decline by increasing cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s defense, compensation, and fortification against damage, decay, and loss. It is the brain’s ability to readjust itself to maintain optimal functioning in spite of suffering in some way. Music is an excellent way to build this reserve because music engages many dimensions of the mind & brain – multiple senses, socializing, motor learning, repetition & habit, processing & problem solving, etc.
Musical training such as learning an instrument or singing can have long-lasting positive effects on memory. Those who train in music for over 10 years tend to have dramatic improvements in verbal & auditory memory.
Just listening to music also has benefits. Memory depends on the successful encoding of information and music provides a richer context for that encoding. When episodic memories (past experiences, events, etc.) involve music, the memory itself has a stronger biological foundation, making it stronger.
Even at old age, listening to something like Buddhist Hymns for 4 months can significantly delay cognitive deterioration.
Tip: Listen to lots of music for the fun and enjoyment of it and learn any instrument you’d like. But don’t give up too soon, learning music takes time but the cognitive boosts are worth it.
7. Learn a new language and use it frequently
Learning a second language (bilingualism) and even a third or fourth language (multilingualism) is often a desirable skill. Especially for social & professional relations, broadening knowledge, and as an indicator of intelligence. An added benefit of learning an extra language is improved memory and protection against memory loss. Read this to get started on learning new vocabulary.
Knowing 2 or more languages (non-native) can delay Alzheimer’s by up to 5 years. Another study compared English-speaking monolinguals with multilinguals who spoke English as a second language. In their study, the multilinguals scored much higher than monolinguals on 4 aspects of working memory – verbal processing, verbal memory, visuospatial processing, and visuospatial memory. Overall, knowing 3 languages came with a significant working memory advantage.
Research shows that multilinguals who are better at their non-mother tongue language tend to score higher on cognitive tests than those who most fluent only in their mother tongue. So it might not be enough to just learn a second language; one might need to practice and get fluent in it.
Tip: Learn new languages in a real-world context by using it with different people. Practice second and third languages enough to hold simple conversations.
8. Manage chronic stress
Find ways to manage stress before it becomes chronic and normalized. Research shows a strong link between long periods of stress and memory loss in cognitively healthy people. However, those with mild cognitive impairment might actually benefit from a little bit of stress. Why this may happen is unknown but some stress slows down the expected cognitive decline in those with mild cognitive impairment. One reason is that those who know they have compromised memory could put in more effort, or increased cortisol (stress hormone) could enhance attention which improves memory indirectly.
Temporarily induced stress can worsen declarative memory which is our memory for facts, learned information, and narratives. It is within reason to believe that frequent stress can cause many temporary disruptions in declarative memory which may seem like memory loss. Anticipating stress can impair memory more than the actual event that causes stress. In one study, researchers gave cortisol to healthy people and tested them on declarative memory, procedural memory, and spatial thinking. Their test results showed that cortisol impaired declarative memory and spatial thinking, but not procedural memory. One possibility is that procedural memory is like a habit that we have deeply ingrained through repetition. Elevated cortisol may not impair such rigidly developed memories. For example, stress could hamper recalling facts (declarative memory) and navigating (spatial thinking) on the road but it probably won’t affect the actual ability to drive (procedural memory).
Tip: Use relaxation techniques or emotional regulation techniques to lower stress before it becomes chronic. Music, exercise, yoga, meditation, day-to-day hobby routines like ironing, reading, puzzles, are good ways to counter acute stress.
9. Use stress strategically
Is all stress bad? Some research says that when a stressful context matches the content of memory, our memory for it enhances. So learning traffic rules while watching stressful road accident videos can potentially improve your memory for traffic rules. Similarly, studying psychology while stressing over procrastination and anxiety can improve memory for related concepts. Studies say stress can enhance memory for emotional events but it interferes with another important memory process called “reconsolidation”. When we form a memory, we consolidate it. When we remember that memory, we recreate it. The memory enters an unstable state that needs to be restabilized through “reconsolidation”. It appears that stress worsens memory for neutral autobiographical memories by disrupting reconsolidation, but doesn’t affect emotional autobiographical memories.
Tip: When stress can’t be avoided, use the emotions to make stronger memories.
10. Expose yourself to a variety of experiences & stay mentally active
Don’t take mental effort for granted, use your brain on purpose, and stay active. Memory is a use-it-or-lose-it function of the brain. Stay intellectually engaged. Play games, sports, puzzles, have conversations, explore your curiosity, learn new things, etc. Apart from gaining formal education & professional expertise, casual activities to stay intellectually stimulated throughout life can slow down cognitive decline and boost cognitive functions like forming memories, recalling experiences, working memory, and problem-solving. Here are some fun ways to keep mental engagement high.
A variety of intellectual, stimulating, or fun & engaging activities are a source of many, many cognitive boosts. For example, just having fun & staying curious broadens memory networks in the brain. Avoid a chronic level of boredom. A review of research considers doing mentally stimulating activities, along with exercise and social engagement, as a way to protect oneself from Alzheimer’s.
Tip: Keep your brain/mind engaged in fun & exciting activities. Games, Netflix, road trips, chess, crossword puzzles, ludo, etc. can help.
Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. Each article is frequently updated with new research findings.
I’m an applied psychologist from Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play the guitar.