Do you feel like your memory is declining as you get older? Well, you’re not alone. I see comments from old friends on Facebook all the time about how they’re having more trouble remembering things. But while my friends’ memories have declined, mine has actually improved.
The main reason we have trouble with our memory as we get older is not age. Those who have trouble remembering people’s names in their later years probably had the same difficulty when they were younger.
The more likely reason we have trouble with our memory as we get older is that our mind is simply out of shape, much in the same way we get physically out of shape. In order for our mind, and memory, to function at their best, we need to exercise it and give it the proper nutrition and rest.
In this article, I’m going to discuss how our memory works, and suggest some healthy lifestyle practices to improve memory and keep your mind in shape. Not only will they make you more effective at work and in your personal life, but they will also preserve the quality of your life as you get older.
How Your Memory Works
When we think of memory, we usually think of our ability to remember things. But that is actually just one of the functions of memory. There are three basic functions of memory: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.1
As the term implies, acquisition is the initial introduction of new information into our brain. Before we remember something, it has to be in our brain to begin with. We can’t remember something that isn’t there, though we can create false memories.
In the acquisition stage, it makes a difference how we acquire the information. If it is simply passive, then the imprint in our brain will be weak, therefore, making it much harder to recall later.
On the other hand, if we are paying close attention to the information, or we’re somehow interacting with it, then the imprint in our brain will be much stronger, making it easier to recall later. This is the main reason why many of us have difficulty remembering people’s names. It’s not because we have bad memory, but rather we are distracted when people tell us their names.
Consolidation is the process by which the memory becomes stable. When we acquire new information, the brain begins working to make it more permanent. That is, it takes information that is in short-term memory and transfers it to long-term memory.
Much of memory consolidation takes place during our sleep. During sleep, our brain creates the neural connections associated with the new information. In fact, evidence suggests that dreaming plays an important role in memory consolidation.2
Recall refers to the process of retrieving information that has been stored in our brain. When the information is strongly imprinted in our brain, it usually comes to mind almost instantly.
However, if the imprint is weak, then we need to do a little more work. We usually start by asking ourselves a question, such as “what is the name of that song?” as we hear the song on the radio. Then our brain starts looking for that information. It often finds it a few minutes later when we’ve given up trying to remember it.
How to Improve Memory
There are many ways to improve memory. Here are just a few. They are lifestyle practices you can adopt for long-term health of not just your memory, but also other cognitive functions.
1. Physical Exercise
Physical exercise helps improve memory in several different ways. One way is by increasing blood flow to the brain. By increasing blood flow, you increase oxygen in the brain and nutrients necessary for proper functioning.3
Exercise indirectly helps the brain function better by reducing insulin resistance and inflammation. It also aids in the production of chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and the overall health of new brain cells.
Another way that exercise improves memory is by reducing stress and anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol plays an important role in memory, and not all bad. On the one hand, it aids in the formation of memories, and on the other, it can hinder memory recall. This is why our mind sometimes goes blank during an exam, or when giving a speech.4
2. Diet and Nutrition
There are many ways that diet and nutrition can improve memory. When it comes to fat, there is much conflicting evidence as to whether it is good or bad.
First of all, the brain is made up of 60 percent fat. So in order for it to work properly, you need some fat in your diet. The question is which kind.
Some say that saturated fats are harmful to the brain because they contain unhealthy LDL cholesterol, which can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries to the brain. However, recent studies reveal that subjects who ate more saturated fats were 36 percent less likely to develop dementia.5
In general, you want a diet that consists of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil. The omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish lead to better vascular health, and therefore, greater blood flow to the brain.6 Red meat can be healthy in moderation.
You probably are well aware that when you don’t get enough sleep, you can’t think very well the next day. Memory is also affected.
One of the reasons your memory is affected by lack of sleep is that your ability to focus your attention is diminished. And when you can’t focus, you diminish your ability to acquire information you may want to recall later.
Another reason sleep is important is that memory consolidation takes place while you sleep. This is the time when the neural connections associated with memories are being developed and strengthened.
So, how much sleep do we need? Well, everybody is different, and therefore, requires a different amount of sleep. For healthy adults, it is generally recommended that they get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.
Reading is a great exercise for the mind. It involves different parts of the brain, such as vision, language, and associative learning. Due to the associative nature of memory, it also stimulates different parts of your memory that might not otherwise be stimulated. That is, things that you read can trigger memories that you haven’t thought about in a long time.
Reading helps preserve your mind as you get older. It can lower the level of beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Reading will also improve your mental flexibility, in the same way that physical exercise can increase agility.
So, which type of reading is more effective at improving memory? Researchers recommend reading fiction because it stimulates the imagination, which is more likely to trigger old memories.7
Studies have shown that learning a new skill can slow the decline in mental capacity. One study examined adults 60 to 90 years of age to determine the effects of learning a new skill, such as quilting or digital photography. These types of skills demand greater use of working and long-term memory. Researchers found a significant improvement in overall memory compared to the control group, which did crossword puzzles.
Another study found that speaking two or more languages can slow age-related mental decline, even if you learned the second language in adulthood.
One way that researchers recommend learning is by taking a class. However, it’s important to engage in the different aspects of a course, such as reading course material, participating in discussions, and getting involved in group projects, because each of these activities requires you to use different brain functions. These activities have the added benefit of boosting self-confidence and keeping your social skills sharp, which are important as you get older.8
6. Mindfulness Meditation
One of the ways that mindfulness meditation can improve memory is by calming your mind. It’s hard for you to think straight if there is a big traffic jam in your mind. So by calming your mind, you’re able to focus your attention and allow for better acquisition of new information. A calm mind will also make it easier for you to retrieve information.
Another way that mindfulness meditation helps improve memory is by reducing stress. When you’re stressed out, the cortisol levels in your body are higher. Remember, higher cortisol levels can impede memory recall.
In order to improve memory through mindfulness meditation, it’s important to learn the techniques. On a basic level, you just sit quietly and follow your breathing as best as you can. When your mind wanders, just keep bringing it back to your breathing.
If you’re new to meditation, start by meditating for about 5-10 minutes at a time. Then gradually increase your sessions to about 20 minutes or more. I recommend meditating either every day, or every other day. Consistency is essential. Keep in mind that the more you meditate, the more you’ll benefit, and not just in mental capacity.
Essentially, what you’re doing through mindfulness meditation is training yourself to be more observant of what is happening in the present moment, and this will help improve memory.
There’s more to mindfulness meditation, but this is a good start. There are other techniques to help your body relax, and to keep your mind from wandering so much. To learn more, I suggest you find a good book that explains the techniques clearly.
I recently heard a talk on C-Span by geographer, historian, and author, Jared Diamond, Ph.D. He is well known for his books on anthropology, most notably, Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel. His books generally deal with the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures.
During his talk, I had to listen carefully. He talked quickly, gave volumes of information, and made solid arguments detailed in his latest book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. I was impressed by his discussion. But what impressed me the most was that Dr. Diamond was 81 years old, and had a mind sharper than most people at any age.
From his talk, it was clear that he did a lot of reading, was always learning new things, was physically active, and from his physical appearance, it looked like he had a fairly healthy diet. I have no idea if he meditates.
Dr. Diamond has lived a lifestyle consisting of practices that keep the mind sharp, and improve memory. He is obviously effective in his work, and has a good quality of life. And at 81 years of age, he’s a great example of the quality of life we’re able to maintain through healthy living.
About the Author: The original article was written by Charles Frances and edited and reprinted with the permission of our friends at The Mindfulness Meditation Institute. To learn more about their work, please visit www.mindfulnessmeditationinstitute.org.
1 Harvard Medical School: Sleep, Learning, and Memory
2 Psychology Today: New Evidence on Dreams and Memory
3 Scientific American: Why Do I Think Better After I Exercise?
4 Cognitive Neuroscience Society: Stress Hormone Hinders Memory Recall
5 Greatist: How Eating Fat Can Make You Smarter
6 Harvard Medical School: Boost Your Memory by Eating Right
7 The Best Brain Possible: 7 Ways Reading Benefits Your Brain
8 Harvard Medical School: Back to School: Learning a New Skill Can Slow Cognitive Aging