Why can’t I recall her name?
Where is my cell phone? I just had it!
What was I supposed to buy at the grocery store?
When older adults notice their memory slipping, it’s natural to feel frustrated or nervous. You may even wonder: Am I getting dementia? The truth is that while some memory loss and cognitive decline are part of your body’s natural aging process, you also can take simple steps to keep your mind sharp — no matter your age.
Nearly every aspect of your lifestyle — including diet, sleep, exercise, and other habits — can mean the difference between being forgetful and being able to remember information.
What Causes Memory Decline?
You have both long-term and short-term memory. Long-term memory is like a vault that you go in to get information. Short-term memory is like a list of items on a notepad that your brain continually updates — or forgets, as the case may be.
Your memory works like a computer. First, your brain takes in information through the senses. From these stimuli, your brain cells — aka neurons — form connections. Your brain sends messages through these connections and stores them as memories in the appropriate “place,” so you can access them later.
Several brain regions work together to create memories and process information. Age-related physical and chemical changes in these areas slow down this activity. Fewer connections are made, and existing connections weaken. The brain may also generate fewer neurotransmitters with age, affecting memory.
How to Improve Your Memory
Whatever your age or health status, you can support the parts of your brain involved in memory. It’s never too late: The brain adapts by growing and rewiring new connections well into your golden years.
Improving your memory involves strengthening the health of your neurons and the connections between them. Below are 13 tried and tested ways to improve your memory.
1. Catch up on Your Sleep
When you sleep, your brain consolidates or permanently stores recent memories. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, can cause poor memory or more serious brain conditions. Getting a full night’s sleep or even a nap will improve your ability to recall information afterward.
Tip: Make sure to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Follow a regular sleep schedule and limit drinks with caffeine, like coffee — especially in the afternoon. Try a natural supplement like valerian or hemp extract.
2. Follow a Healthy Diet
Eat foods rich in antioxidants — these come from brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Excellent nutrition supports vibrant brain cells, and that boosts memory formation and recall.
A whole-food, plant-based diet provides this type of nourishment. People who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of memory decline and even dementia. A typical American diet full of saturated fats and refined carbohydrates can cause shrinkage of the brain area that stores short-term memories.
Tip: Try a plant-based Mediterranean diet built on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil. Olive oil’s omega-3 fatty acids protect brain function and boost cognitive abilities. Avoid sugar and junk food to avoid brain fog.
3. Eat Blueberries & Strawberries
Many berries protect the brain as we age, but blueberries and strawberries pack the biggest punch. Experts think this is due to their high levels of flavonoids and anthocyanins (two powerful antioxidants). That strengthen brain connections, supporting long-term memory.
In a group of 16,000 women, those who ate the most blueberries and strawberries had slower rates of cognitive decline — this means the loss of memory, focus, and "thinking skills." Blueberries also improve your ability to perform spatial memory tasks, like recall.
Tip: Incorporate blueberries, strawberries, and other berries into your diet. Toss them in your morning oatmeal or on your salad. They also make the perfect sweet but healthy snack.
4. Reduce Your Stress
Did you know that the stress of a hectic life can mess with your ability to form and recall memories? Regular exposure to stress hormones harms brain cells and damages the hippocampus — a part of your brain that creates memories. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol, in particular, can affect your working memory.
Tip: Balance your work-life responsibilities. Make sure to take breaks for rest, fun, and socializing. Blow off steam by working out, and find effective ways to relax, such as meditation.
Tip: Even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, develop a meditation practice.. Try meditating along with an online video. Or simply find a comfortable, quiet spot to sit and clear your mind. During the allotted time, focus only on your breathing and the present moment, gradually relaxing your body.
6. Keep Your Thyroid in Good Shape
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ in the neck. It produces hormones that balance several of your body processes, including brain activity.
If your thyroid hormone levels dip too low, you may notice verbal-memory lapses and muddled thinking. Hypothyroidism — an under-functioning thyroid gland — can ultimately lead to a shrunken hippocampus if not treated. As mentioned, this part of the brain is connected to memory. So keep that thyroid in tip-top shape for the best memory.
Tip: If you think your thyroid may be out of whack, have a health professional check your thyroid hormone levels. A diet rich in iodine (from kelp) and selenium (from Brazil nuts) helps support thyroid health.
7. Lower Your Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a natural fat found in your blood and cells, and it’s vital for brain health. But high levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol can interfere with memory. Like sludge in a pipe, it clogs your arteries, harms blood vessels, and restricts blood flow to your brain.
8. Check Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D plays a vital role in memory. It supplies your brain with the cholesterol it needs to function well. It also plays a role in cognitive performance.
Tip: Ask your healthcare provider to test your vitamin D levels. If you’re low (which is common), eat more D-rich mushrooms, or take a supplement. Expose your bare skin daily to the best source of vitamin D — the sun.
9. Make Sure to Exercise... Regularly
If your body’s not in shape, neither is your mind. Regular exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation. Exercise prompts the release of brain chemicals called growth factors that support brain cells.
Exercise actually helps stimulate new brain cells to grow, as well as making new connections between them. These effects appear to work with both short-term and long-term exercise patterns. Slow pedaling on a bike for just 10 minutes improves memory!
Tip: Get in the habit of moving every day, even if it’s just a walk around the block. Get an exercise buddy to join you for motivation.
10. Keep Your Brain “Muscles” Active
When it comes to memory, use it or lose it! The more often you perform mental tasks that require attention, the better you can store and recall information. “Exercising” your brain strengthens your memory.
Scientists think that when you engage your brain, it increases the number of cells in your hippocampus. People who did 15 minutes of online brain-training most days of the week had better short-term memory and problem-solving skills than those who didn’t.
Tip: Challenge your mind! Try a new hobby, do jigsaw puzzles, or play Sudoku. Learn a new language or how to play an instrument. Tackle brain-teaser books or try brain-training phone apps.
11. Increase Vitamin B12 Intake
Your brain uses 20 percent of your body’s energy. That’s why vitamin B12, which plays a significant role in energy metabolism, helps memory. Your body stores this vitamin less efficiently as you age.
Tip: Include plant sources of the vitamin in your diet, such as the sea vegetable nori. If you’re low, you may need to take a supplement. I recommend Global Healing’s organic, plant-based B12 Blend for excellent memory support.
12. Take Lithium Orotate
Lithium orotate is a form of the mineral lithium blended with a compound called orotic acid. We need small but critical amounts of lithium for brain health and beyond. People who lived in neighborhoods where the drinking water had higher levels of lithium were happier, more peaceful, and had fewer public safety issues.
Tip: You can add natural sources of lithium to your diet, including legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, or you can take a supplement. Global Healing’s Lithium Orotate promotes sharp focus, a balanced mood, and a healthy response to stress.
13. Take Memory-Boosting Herbs
Some herbs and plant parts help support a sharp memory, including:
- Turmeric: Curcumin, the main chemical in this spice, is an antioxidant. Studies suggest it may protect the brain from age-related neuron damage.
- Gingko (Gingko biloba): Derived from gingko tree leaves, this antioxidant helps improve blood flow to the brain.
- Chinese sinega (Polygala tenufolia): Traditional healers have long used the roots of this plant to support cognitive health.
- Goji berry (Lycii fructus): This nutrient-rich fruit contains compounds that help protect neurons (brain cells).[31, 32]
Tip: Cook up some South Asian recipes with turmeric. Or purchase a concentrated supplement like Global Healing’s Turmeric Raw Herbal Extract™ with black pepper. You can also take any of the other memory-aiding plant ingredients as supplements for a memory boost.
Points to Remember
While some memory loss is a natural part of aging, there are strategies that can boost your ability to make and recall memories.
Adopt lifestyle habits that support your brain’s ability to encode, record, and retrieve information. Get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and reduce daily stress. Practice meditation, engage in mental workouts, and take memory-boosting herbs, such as gingko or turmeric.
Changes to your hormones, cholesterol levels, or thyroid condition can affect memory. So can deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. Check your cholesterol, thyroid hormone levels, and vitamin B12 and D levels if your memory is declining. If low, take these essential nutrients. Lithium orotate supplements may also provide help for improving memory.
- Small G. What we need to know about age-related memory loss. BMJ. 2002 Jun 22;324(7352):1502-1505.
- Yoo SS, et al. A deficit in the ability to form new human memories without sleep. Nat Neurosci. 2007 Mar;10(3):385-392.
- Dieselmann S, Born J. The memory function of sleep. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Feb;11(2):114-126.
- Jiang X, et al. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: meta-analysis. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017;9:18.
- Beilharz JE, et al. Short-term exposure to a diet high in fat and sugar, or liquid sugar, selectively impairs hippocampal-dependent memory, with differential impacts on inflammation. Behav Brain Res. 2016 Jun 1;306:1-7.
- Devore EE, et al. Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Ann Neurol.2012 Jul;72(1):135-143.
- Williams CM, et al. Blueberry-induced changes in spatial working memory correlate with changes in hippocampal CREB phosphorylation and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels. Radic Biol Med. 2008 Aug;45(3);295-305.
- Luethi M, et al. Stress effects on working memory, explicit memory, and implicit memory for neutral and emotional stimuli in healthy men. Front Behav Neurosci. 2008;2:5.
- Sapolsky RM. Glucocorticoids, stress, and their adverse neurological effects: relevance to aging. Exp Gerontol. 1999 Sept;34(6):721-732.
- Sharma H.Meditation: process and effects. Ayu. 2015 Jul-Sep;36(3):2331237.
- Gard T, et al.The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Ann NY Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:89-103.
- Luders E, et al. The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and front volumes of gray matter. Neuroimage.2009 Apr 15;45(3):672-678.
- Mayo Clinic staff. Memory Loss: When to Seek Help. Mayo Clinic website. 19 Apr 2019. Accessed 27 May 2019.
- Convit A, et al. Hippocampal volume reductions in individuals at risk for Alzheimer's disease. Neurobiol Aging. 1997 Mar-Apr;18(2):131-138.
- Cholesterol, the Mind, and the Brain. Harvard Health Publishing website. Mar 2007. Accessed 31 May 2019.
- Understanding Memory Loss.National Institute on Aging. 2018. Accessed 27 May 2019.
- Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know. Medline Plus website. Updated 18 Apr 2019. Accessed 1 Jun 2019.18.
- Miller JW, et al. Vitamin D status and rates of cognitive decline in a multiethnic cohort of older adults. JAMA Neurol.2015 Nov;72(11):1295-1303.
- Sommer I, et al. Vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for dementia: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Geriatr. 2017;17:16.
- Godman H. Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills. Harvard Health Blog. Updated 5 Apr 2018. Accessed 1 Jun 2019.
- Gage FH. Neurogenesis in the adult brain. J Neurosci. 2002;22(3):612-613.
- Suwabe K, et al. Rapid stimulation of human dentate gyrus function with acute mild exercise. PNAS. 2018 9 Oct;15(41):10487-10492.
- Van PH, et al. Neural consequences of environmental enrichment. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2000;1(3):191-198.
- Hardy JL, et al. Enhancing cognitive abilities with comprehensive training: a large, online, randomized, active-controlled trial. PLoS One. 2015 Sep 2;10(9):e0134467.
- Raichle ME. Two views of brain function. Trends Cogn. Sci. 2010;14:180-190.
- Issac TG, et al. Vitamin B12 deficiency: an important reversible co-morbidity in neuropsychiatric manifestations. Indian J Psychol Med.2015 Jan-Mar;37(1):26-29.
- Schrauzer GN, Shrestha KP. Lithium in drinking water and the incidences of crimes, suicides, and arrests related to drug addictions. Biol Trace Elem Res. 1990;25(2):105-113.
- Marshall TM. Lithium as a nutrient. J Am Physicians Surgeons. 2015;20(4):104-109.
- Lithium – Dietary: Vitamins & Supplements. Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation website. Updated 26 July 2016. Accessed 1 June 2019.
- Cole GM, et al. Neuroprotective effects of curcumin. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:197-212.
- Cheng J, et al. An evidence-based update on the pharmacological activities and possible molecular targets of Lycium barbarum polysaccharides. Drug Des Devel Ther.2014 Dec 17;9:33-78.
- Hong F, et al. A review of three commonly used herbs which enhance memory and new evidences which show their combination could improve memory in young animals. Mini Rev Med Chem. 2017;17(16):1537-1547.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.