How to improve your memory and keep your brain sharp
Published June 25, 2021
What is memory?
Memory is the ability to retain information and recall it at a later time. Memory is necessary for our survival; it shapes our identity, guides our thoughts and decisions and influences our emotional reactions.
There are several ways to classify memory. The different types of memory rely on distinct neural systems; some of the common types of memory studied include:
Sensory memory acts as a buffer for stimuli you receive through your senses. You only retain this information for a brief moment in time, typically less than half a second. These memories can include a quick flash of memory that comes with a scent, a sound or an image.
Short-term memory is the ability to hold and recall information for a short period, usually a few seconds. Short-term memory relies on existing networks in the brain.
Working memory is not wholly separate from short-term memory; it is the memory used to plan and carry out behaviour in the short-term. These could include the memory needed to do a maths sum in your head or to bake a cake without inadvertently adding the same ingredient twice.
Long-term memory involves storing information for more extended periods, sometimes for an entire lifetime. Long-term memory involves structural and functional changes in the brain that requires new gene expression.
Memories can also be classified according to the types of behavioural they produce; these include declarative and procedural memories.
Declarative (explicit) memory
Declarative memories are memories that can be consciously recalled, such as facts, people and events. Declarative memories are known to critically engage the medial temporal lobe, and particularly the hippocampus in the brain.
Procedural (implicit) memory
Procedural memories store information about skills, for example, driving a car, riding a bike or playing an instrument. Procedural memories use the cerebellum in the brain.
Despite these different distinctions, memories are often complex and made from experiences that involve multiple memory systems interacting with each other.
Feeling forgetful? When should you be concerned?
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why? Have you misplaced your keys…again? Are you worried about whether these lapses are normal? When should you speak to your healthcare practitioner about you, or a loved one?
These little memory slips are usually not anything to worry about and experts say that it’s usually others who notice the subtle signs of memory loss in you before you do. Some signs to look out for include:
Changes to short-term memory
The impairment of short-term memory involves forgetting information you have been exposed too recently. It may include asking the same question over and over again, or forgetting where you have just put something. Some people may forget a recent event or something they recently saw or read.
Changes to working memory
Changes in working memory can include being unable to recall a phone number as soon as hearing it or unable to perform a task after moving from one room to another.
Changes to long-term memory
Changes to long-term memory can include forgetting events that happened in your past.
Changes to declarative memory
Changes to declarative memory may include:
- Being unable to remember breakfast this morning, or the destination of your last holiday.
- Being unable to recall the cabinet where your pack away you dinner plates or the location of your usual chemist.
- Not being able to recall the number of weeks in a year or the breed of your family dog.
- Starting to call most household items ‘things’ because you can’t remember the name of them.
Changes to procedural memory
Changes to procedural memory could include being unable to recall how to hold a violin bow or swing off at the golf tee.
What can cause memory loss?
Ageing and memory
Memory loss is common with ageing and is not always an indication of a more serious condition. Normal memory loss with ageing doesn’t prevent you from living a full, productive life.
Treatable medical conditions that can impair memory
Some medical conditions can temporarily contribute to memory loss; once theses are treated the memory impairment should improve, these can include:
- Brain issues
- Some thyroid, kidney, or liver conditions
- Head injuries, such as a concussion from a fall or accident
- Side effects of some medications
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
Stressful life events and memory
Emotional problems, such as stress or anxiety can make you more forgetful. The confusion and forgetfulness caused by strong emotions are usually temporary and will pass with time. But if these feelings last for more than two weeks, get help from your healthcare practitioner or counsellor. Being around supportive friends and family and treatment recommended by your healthcare practitioner can help you feel better and improve your memory.
How to prevent memory loss
Exercise has been shown to have a profound effect on memory function, across a variety of age groups and a variety of activities. A literature review conducted in 2017 evaluated 17 studies and found exercise improved several memory parameters, including declarative memory, working memory, logical function, visuospatial function and procedural memory.
Look after your heart
Keeping your blood vessels healthy, also keeps your brain healthy. High blood pressure has been linked to a higher incidence of cognitive decline, so keeping your blood pressure in check also helps your brain health.
A Mediterranean-style diet helps brain health
A Mediterranean-style diet helps brain health in several ways:
- Protective — Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil help improve the health of blood vessels.
- Good fats — Fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower levels of better vascular health for the heart and the brain.
- Quit smoking — quitting smoking will benefit your overall health as well as your brain health.
Maintain a healthy weight
Work with your healthcare practitioner to maintain not just a healthy weight, but also a healthy waist measurement. For men, this means a waist circumference less than 94 centimetres and for women, a waist circumference of less than 80 centimetres.
Nutrients that support memory
Several key nutrients have been shown to support brain or cognitive function as you age. These include:
- Vitamin B12 — Low Vitamin B12 levels are associated with poor memory performance. Sources of vitamin B12 include seafood, beef, chicken, eggs and milk.
- Vitamin B1 — Mild deficiency symptoms of vitamin B1 include irritability, emotional disturbances, confusion and memory loss. Deficiency risk is associated with alcohol abuse and obesity. Sources of vitamin B1 include wholegrains, green leafy vegetables, potato, pasta, liver, pork and eggs.
- Vitamin B6 — Vitamin B6 deficiency symptoms can include impaired alertness and cognitive decline. Deficiency is associated with alcohol abuse, age-related malabsorption and some medications. Sources of vitamin B6 include meat, fish, legumes, nuts, bananas and potatoes.
- Omega-3 fatty acids — In a systematic review of omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive decline, ten randomised control trials showed positive outcome on at least one domain of cognitive function ( eg. working memory, executive function, verbal memory, short-term memory. Sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fish and other seafood, nuts and seeds and plant oils such as flaxseed oil.
Herbal ingredients that helps memory and concentration
- Cereboost™ — CereboostTM — a unique extract of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium) — improves short term memory in adults and supports memory recall.
- Ginkgo biloba — Ginkgo biloba is an ancient herb that helps to support memory and cognitive function in adults. It enhances blood flow to the brain and other tissues of the body by improving microcirculation.
- Brahmi —Brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) is a herb that supports higher cognitive processes such as learning and memory, and assists in informations processing in adults.
- Korean ginseng — Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) has been shown in clinical trials to have cognitive-supporting effects.
If you experience occasional bouts of forgetfulness or want to maintain your brain power as you grow older, there are many things you can do to help support cognitive function.
Adding a new exercise routine, eating healthy fresh food or using herbs and micronutrients to support brain function, can all help promote a healthy brain and support cognitive function.
Speak to your healthcare practitioner to see if supplementation is right for you.
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