Our memories are precious, which is why it’s natural to want to learn how to improve your memory. Most of us have a collection of memories that we hold dear – memories we wouldn’t want to forget. Many of these special memories are created during the holidays, but it doesn’t have to be a holiday memory to be a special one.
Memories are incredibly powerful and play an instrumental role in our lives. Memories can stir up emotions very quickly, often without intent. Do certain senses play a role in how to improve your memory? Your sense of smell is connected to your memories, but sights and sounds can trigger memories as well. There is an especially unique connection when it comes to music and memory, and how certain songs can act as cue cards to our past. In an instant, we can be transported to a specific moment in the past, or make predictions of future events based on memories of past experiences.
Our memories also contribute to our sense of self. Some of our core memories stand out more than others and, in a way, certain core memories define who we are.
It’s next to impossible to imagine what life would be like without any memories, but memory loss is a very common problem for people all around the world. Most of us will face some problems with our memories as we get older. Fortunately, there are some steps we can take to combat memory impairment as well as cognitive decline.
What are some of the root causes of having a bad memory, and what changes can we make now to preserve our memories as we age?
Causes of Memory Impairment
There are a number of factors that contribute to memory impairment. An area of the brain called the hippocampus is a critical piece of memory formation. Unfortunately, it’s one of the first structures to deteriorate as we get older.
Memory loss is a major symptom in conditions like Alzheimer’s which mostly affects people in their 60s or older but can be diagnosed as early mid-thirties.
Senior lecturer and associate chair Jillene Grover Seiver, Ph.D. explains, “With age, the hippocampus atrophies, in part because of a reduction in neurogenesis – the growth of new cells.”
Additionally, if you’ve had any kind of head trauma or injury, even a minor accident, your memory can be affected. Certain medications or combinations of medications can also inhibit memory, as can a vitamin B-12 deficiency.
Finally, emotional disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, or long-term substance abuse can be a major contributing factor to memory impairment.
How Stress Impacts Your Memory
The stress hormone cortisol has a give-and-take relationship with our memory. On one hand, elevated levels of cortisol can aid in the formation of memories, which may explain why a last-minute study session can seemingly be so effective.
However, cortisol seems to hinder our ability to recall those memories, which might be the reason so many students can’t remember what they studied during a test.
Chronically high cortisol levels have been shown to damage the hippocampus, and cortisol has been linked to an increased risk of dementia.
Getting enough sleep, learning to recognize stressful thoughts, and relaxing can significantly reduce cortisol levels, leading to better memory formation and recall. Therapy and meditation can be very helpful here, particularly a type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioural therapy. During CBT, a therapist or counsellor can work with you to identify stressful thinking patterns and then challenge those thoughts, which will decrease your cortisol levels, thus improving memory acquisition and recall.
How to Improve Your Memory and Keep Your Brain Sharp: Brain Stimulation Exercises
You can keep your memory sharp and your cognitive function in great shape by regularly doing brain stimulation exercises, especially as you age. Think of it as mental fitness, which is just as important as physical fitness. Jillene Grover Seiver, Ph.D. explains, “We used to think that once a person reached adulthood, the brain didn’t grow new cells, but now we understand that the hippocampus can grow new cells well into old age. Thanks to a 1998 study of cancer patients who were receiving a chemotherapy treatment that adheres to new cells, patients in their 80s were revealed to have new cell growth in the hippocampus.”
One of the best ways to delay memory impairment related to old age is to keep mentally active. An entire industry has been built around this theory, with apps like Lumosity, which claim to improve memory and cognitive function, being marketed to senior citizens.
Additionally, doing crossword puzzles, sudoku, or playing complicated card games like Bridge or Gin Rummy have been linked to greater volumes of grey matter in the brain, which decreases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. You’ll master how to improve your memory if you become a regular at these types of brain-stimulating exercises.
Other ways to challenge yourself and improve cognitive ability include learning a new language, playing an instrument or taking alternate routes to familiar places.
How Staying Physically Active Helps Your Cognitive Function
We all know that regular physical activity is good for the body and mind, but recent research has suggested that even mild physical activity can reap tremendous benefits for regions of the brain associated with memory, aside from reducing stress.
According to a study done in 2018, fMRI images taken of the brains of senior citizens just 10 minutes after very light physical exertion (like Tai-chi, walking, or yoga) revealed improved communication between the hippocampus and other areas of the brain associated with memory.
Additionally, there is evidence that suggests that obesity may have a negative impact on cognitive function, plasticity, and may alter brain structure in an undesirable way.
Finally, long-term exercise has been shown to increase the concentration of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF is a gene that, among other things, helps the brain develop new connections. This process of synaptogenesis makes it easier for us to absorb new information and create memories.
Finally, exercises that get our heart rate up (like running, rowing or jumping rope) increase blood flow to the brain, bringing with it vital nutrients that the brain needs to increase the production of molecules necessary for all brain function, including memory.
Food and Memory: Eating More “Brain Food”
Certain superfoods are great for your brain function and memory. According to Dr. Daniel Boyer of the Farr Institute, nutrition also plays a part in memory preservation, “Foods rich in omega 3-s, like legumes and whole grains, help in the growth of new brain and nerve cells. The more cells in your nervous system, the better your memory.”
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in particular is a type of Omega-3 that may help preserve cognitive function and memory. It can be found in walnuts or oily fish such as salmon or mackerel. If you don’t eat fish, you can get your dose of DHA through seaweed or algae, as well as chia, hemp or flax seeds, kidney beans or edamame. Omega-3s are also available in the form of supplements. People who get less than 2 servings of Omega-3s per week might consider taking the supplement.
Leafy greens, rich in vitamin E, may also help preserve your cognitive function, as vitamin E might reduce inflammation in the brain and prevent plaque from building up on brain cells, and plaque build-up is associated with Alzheimer’s.
Although it is rare, certain genetic mutations can cause someone to develop frontotemporal dementia or certain forms of Alzheimer’s disease. Genetic testing is available from CircleDNA that can determine whether or not you have inherited the gene most commonly associated with the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, the APOE variant. This doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get Alzheimer’s or lose your memory, it just explains your risk level. A DNA test from CircleDNA can help you learn if you are at a higher risk of developing cognitive decline associated with memory loss. This might motivate you to keep mentally active and continue to exercise your brain as you age.