Our memories are an integral part of who we are, but as we age our memory declines. For many older adults, the decline becomes so serious that they’re no longer able to live independently, which is one of the biggest fears adults have as they age.
The good news is that scientists have been learning more about our brain’s amazing capacity to change and grow new neural connections each day, even in old age. This concept is known as neuroplasticity. Through research on neuroplasticity, scientists have discovered that our memory capacity isn’t fixed, but rather malleable like plastic.
To take full advantage of neuroplasticity, you’ll need to exercise your brain and take care of your body. These 25 tips and tricks are some of the most effective methods for improving memory.
1. Learn something new
Memory strength is just like muscular strength. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. But you can’t lift the same size weight every day and expect to get stronger. You’ll need to keep your brain constantly challenged. Learning a new skill is an excellent way to strengthen your brain’s memory capacity.
There are many activities to choose from, but most importantly, you’ll need to find something that forces you out of your comfort zone and commands your full attention.
Here are some examples:
- learn a new instrument
- make pottery
- play mind games, like Sudoku or chess
- learn a new type of dance, like the tango
- learn a new language
2. Repeat and retrieve
Any time you learn a new piece of information, you’re more likely to mentally record that information if it’s repeated.
Repetition reinforces the connections we create between neurons. Repeat what you hear out loud. Try using it in a sentence. Write it down and read it aloud.
But the work doesn’t stop there. Research shows that simple repetition is an ineffective learning tool if used on its own. You’ll need to sit back down later and actively try to retrieve the information without looking at where you wrote it down. Testing yourself to retrieve the information is better than repeated studying. Practicing retrieval creates more long-term and meaningful learning experiences.
3. Try acronyms, abbreviations, and mnemonics
Mnemonic devices can be in the form of acronyms, abbreviations, songs, or rhymes.
Mnemonics have been tested since the 1960s as an effective strategy for students. You’ve probably been taught a few mnemonic devices for remembering long lists. For example, the colors of the spectrum can be remembered with the name ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
4. “Group” or “chunk” information
Grouping or chunking refers to the process of dividing newly learned information into chunks to produce fewer, larger chunks of information. For example, you may have noticed that it’s much easier to remember a phone number if the 10 digits are grouped into three separate chunks (e.g. 555-637-8299) rather than one long number (5556378299).
5. Construct a “mind palace”
The mind palace technique is often used by memory champions. In this ancient technique, you create a visual and complex place to store a set of memories.
For more instructions on how to create memory palaces, watch 2006 U.S. Memory Champion Joshua Foer’s TED talk.
6. Use all of your senses
Another tactic of memory connoisseurs is that they don’t just rely on one sense to help retain information. Instead, they relate information to other senses, like colors, tastes, and smells.
7. Don’t turn to google right away
Modern technology has its place, but unfortunately has made us “mentally lazy.” Before you reach for your phone to ask Siri or Google, make a solid attempt to retrieve the information with your mind. This process helps reinforce the neural pathways in your brain.
8. Lose the GPS
Another common mistake is relying on the GPS every time you drive. Researchers found in 2013 that relying on response techniques — such as GPS — for navigation, shrinks a part of our brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for spatial memory and moving information from short-term to long-term memory. Poor hippocampus health is associated with dementia and memory decline.
Unless you’re totally lost, try to get to your destination using your brain instead of just following the instructions on your GPS. Perhaps use GPS to get there, but use your brain to get back home. Your brain will thank you for the extra challenge.
9. Keep yourself busy
A busy schedule can maintain your brain’s episodic memory. One study linked busy schedules to better cognitive function. This study, however, was limited by self-reporting.
10. Stay organized
An organized person has an easier time remembering. Checklists are one good tool for organization. Manually writing down your checklist (instead of doing it electronically) also increases the likelihood that you’ll remember what you’ve written down.
11. Sleep on a regular schedule
Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time each morning. Try not to break your routine on the weekends. This can greatly improve sleep quality.
12. Avoid bright screens before bed
The blue light emitted by cell phone, TV, and computer screens inhibits the production of melatonin, a hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). A poorly regulated sleep cycle can really take a toll on sleep quality.
Without enough sleep and rest, the neurons in our brain become overworked. They can no longer coordinate information, making it more difficult to access memories. Roughly an hour before bedtime, turn off your devices and allow your brain to unwind.
13. Eat more of these foods:
Diets such as the Mediterranean diet, DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension), and the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay) have a few things in common. This includes their ability to improve memory and reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
These diets focus on eating:
- plant-based foods, especially green, leafy vegetables and berries
- whole grains
- chicken or turkey
- olive oil or coconut oil
- herbs and spices
- fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines
- red wine, in moderation
Fatty fish are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s play an important role in building brain and nerve cells. They’re essential for learning and memory and have been shown to delay cognitive decline.
14. Eat less of these foods:
Proponents of the Mediterranean and MIND diets say to avoid the following foods:
- processed foods
- red meat
- fried foods
Sugar and fat has been linked to impaired memory. A recent study in humans found that a diet high in fats and sugars — common in a Western diet — impairs hippocampal memory. However, the study relied on questionnaires and surveys, which may not be as accurate.
15. Avoid certain medications
While you should still take your medications prescribed by your doctor, remember to follow your doctor’s instructions for dietary and lifestyle changes too.
Other medications that might affect memory include:
- antianxiety medications
- hypertension drugs
- sleeping aids
Talk to your doctor about how to manage your medical conditions so you don’t have to rely on a prescription forever. If you’re worried about how a medication may affect your memory, talk to your doctor about your options.
16. Get physical
Exercising has been shown to have cognitive benefits. It improves oxygen and nutrient delivery to the body, and helps to create new cells in the brain which are essential for memory storage. Exercise especially increases the number of cells in the hippocampus.
There’s no need for the exercise to be strenuous. Walking, for example, is a great choice.
17. Manage stress
When you’re stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol has been shown to greatly impair the brain’s memory process, especially our ability to retrieve long-term memories. Stress and depression have even been shown in animal studies to shrink the brain.
Humans are social creatures. Research shows that a strong support system is vital to our emotional and brain health. One study from 2007 found that people with very active social lives had the slowest memory decline. Just 10 minutes of talking to another person was shown to improve memory.
19. Drink water
Your brain is made mostly of water. Water acts as a shock absorber for the brain and spinal cord. It helps our brain cells use nutrients. So just a small amount of dehydration can have disastrous effects. Mild dehydration has been shown to cause brain shrinkage and memory impairment.
Aim for at least eight to ten glasses per day, or more if you’re very active.
20. Drink coffee
21. Don’t binge drink
It’s true that moderate consumption of alcohol may have a positive effect on memory, but keep in mind that moderate means just one drink for women and two for men each day.
Drinking more than that can have a negative effect on your ability to retain information as well as your sleep.
There’s mounting evidence for the health benefits of meditation. Studies show that meditation helps improve several cognitive functions, like focus, concentration, memory, and learning. Meditation may actually rewire the brain and encourage more connections between brain cells. There are several ways to meditate — find out which one is right for you.
23. Enjoy nature
Getting out into nature is incredibly important for our emotional and physical health. Enjoying nature can even be considered a form of meditation. One 2008 study found that a walk in a park improved memory and attention compared to walking in a city.
24. Practice yoga
One study from 2012 found that a mere 20 minutes of yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on memory tests. Participants performed significantly better on the tests after yoga compared to aerobic exercise. The study, however, was limited by its narrow sample size of just 30 young, female students.
Yoga also emphasizes breathing from the diaphragm, which helps maximize our oxygen intake, thus improving mental function.
25. Shed the extra weight
People with more fatty tissue tend to have less water than people with less fatty tissue. Overweight people also have less brain tissue. The more overweight you are, the more your brain is likely to shrink and affect your memory.
The bottom line
Our memory is a skill, and just like other skills, it can be improved with practice and healthy overall habits. You can start small. For example, pick a new challenging activity to learn, incorporate a few minutes of exercise into your day, maintain a sleep schedule, and eat a few more green vegetables, fish, and nuts.
The next time you have to study for an exam, try one of the techniques suggested by memory champions, like chunking, mind palaces, or retrieval.
Talk to your doctor if you notice that you’re making many more mistakes than usual or have trouble completing simple daily tasks, like cooking or cleaning.