It was once thought that memory was something we couldn’t improve and that our ability to remember things was static and unchanging. Now, we know that’s not true. Memory is a skill, and like any other cognitive ability such as mathematics or foreign languages, we can strengthen it by consciously using it.
When people say they want to improve their memory, they usually mean their short-term memory, the function of the brain that helps us store and recall small bits of information like the name of a new co-worker or the phone number from a For Sale sign. Typically, the short term memory can hold up to seven pieces of information at the same time. After that point, something has to go.
Long-term memory is for those things we don’t need to recall in the immediate moment, such as important experiences and facts about our lives.
While there are many things we can do to improve our memory, it’s important to realize that memory is a function of the brain. As such, anything we can do for brain health will automatically work toward a better memory, as well. In the same way, a healthy body means a healthy brain, so anything we do for our overall physical health will also benefit us on a cognitive level. When we learn to feed and exercise our brain properly, we don’t have to accept memory slippage as a natural part of aging, because it’s not.
Eat a brain boosting diet —
The brain is 60% fat and functions best when we eat healthy saturated fats that contain essential fatty acids like omeg-3, which are crucial for brain function. Some healthy fat sources high in omega-3’s are herring, mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, anchovies, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and pasture-raised meat and eggs. A Mediterranean diet, which is high in these foods, along with vegetables, non-sweet fruits like avocado, and a daily glass of red wine has been shown to boost memory and delay age-related cognitive decline. Seniors on the MIND diet, a version of the Mediterranean diet developed by neurologists, showed a 53% reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. A ketogenic diet (high fat, low carb, moderate protein) has also shown promise in improving mild cognitive impairment. Avoid sugar. High blood sugar levels have been shown to decrease activity of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory, along with instigating attention and short-term memory deficits.
Physical exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain. In particular, aerobic exercise causes the nerve cells to release proteins called neurotrophic factors that trigger numerous chemical reactions beneficial to cognition and learning. Research also shows that not only does aerobic exercise help the brain learn better and faster, but it expands the memory center (hippocampus) of the brain, even in aging people.
Get good sleep —
Getting a full eight hours of sleep every night is essential for overall health, but especially brain function. Studies show that not only is good sleep vital to memory, but deep REM sleep improves problem-solving capability and significantly increases creativity and generating new ideas.
Even people with the best diet don’t always get the proper amount of nutrients they need. To ensure optimal brain function, take a food-based multi-vitamin every day. Proper amounts of vitamins C, D, E, K and B complex are vital to brain health, as well as magnesium, iron, iodine, and zinc. Plan on taking a good omega-3 supplement, as well, in the form of cod liver or krill oil.
Essential oils —
Our senses are enhanced in many ways through essential oils. It’s been found that the aroma of rosemary oil improves memory function, while peppermint oil enhances alertness.
Electronic gadgets are making us lazy and weakening our cognitive ability. The next time you take a trip by car, turn off the GPS and stimulate your brain’s visuospatial abilities to get you there. Dependence on GPS is destroying cognitive directional senses that have taken humans tens of thousands of years to develop. The brain is on autopilot during a routine commute. Taking a different route to work will stimulate the brain cortex and hippocampus. Don’t reach for the calculator; do the addition or percentage conversion by hand. Stop using speed dial and rely on your memory for the numbers instead.
Avoid OTC medications —
Prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications are well-known to contribute to memory loss, with cholesterol-lowering statins and sleeping pills being among the worst. Antihistamines, pain relievers, sleep aids, and those for acid reflux have all been show to contribute to dementia.
Stop multi-tasking —
The brain needs about eight seconds to commit any piece of information to memory. If we don’t give something our full attention for the proper amount of time to complete it before moving on to something else, the brain doesn’t have the time to fully encode the experience, making it difficult if not impossible to recall the details later. While a favorite in the corporate world, multi-tasking has long been known to interfere with short-term memory.
Not only does meditation help us relax and destress, it’s a powerful way to learn to filter out all the mental noise and focus our attention. Hundreds of studies have proven the cognitive benefit of meditation, including improved memory and growth of the hippocampus and frontal gray matter.
Meaningful activity —
Taking up a meaningful hobby that isn’t a mindless pastime, but has real purpose and emotional investment has been shown to prevent brain aging and help focus attention in much the same way as meditation. Activities such as gardening, home improvement, crafting, or painting can all work as long as they have an emotional purpose behind them. Taking up a musical instrument or learning a new language are great choices because the level of difficulty can be increased over time to keep the brain working harder. A difficult piano piece you’ve already mastered doesn’t stretch the brain in the same way as a new difficult piece you’ve never played before. At the same time, listening to instrumental music has been shown to positively impact memory and attention. People who speak more than one language often have better working memory and memorization skills.
Sense it —
Whatever it is you want to remember, the more senses you involve in the experience, the stronger the encoding will be. Just remembering a favorite meal can immediately bring it to mind in vivid detail. Why? Because of the aroma, texture, flavor, color, mouth feel, and even the sound of certain foods like sizzling.
Repeat it —
Repetition is a powerful way to remember something, especially if you say it out loud. If you can recite it rhythmically, the encoding will be enhanced even more. Alliteration and rhyming work to strengthen memorization, too. For example, Tom takes the trash, but only on Tuesdays. To remember the months of the year with 30 days in them; Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.
Use mnemonic devices —
These are memory tools to help remember words, information or concepts.
Make up a sentence in which the first letter of each word represents the first letter of each item in a sequence you want to remember. For example, to remember all the planets in proper sequence you might create the sentence, Mary’s Violet Eyes Made John Stay Up Nights Pining. This would help you remember Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
Abbreviations or acronyms —
Create acronyms using the first letter of each item you need to remember. Have to pick up pasta, lettuce, avocados, tomatoes, eggs and sausage at the grocery store? Remember it as PLATES.
Break long lists of information down into manageable groupings that are easier to remember. Instead of 8034273298, it’s easier to remember 803, 427, and 3298.
Make associations. Can’t remember Sandy’s name? Imagine her on a sandy beach and keep that reference picture of her in your mind. Does someone have a particular facial feature, personality trait, occupation or anything else you can use to create a visual association that will help you remember what’s important?
Of course, the old reminder list never fails. Be sure to place reminder notes for yourself in places where you’re certain not to miss them.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit beingclarity.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.