17.NOV.2017 4 MIN READ | 4 MIN READ

Do you find yourself forgetting things, like your colleagues’ names, your best friend’s birthday or where you left your house keys?

Last updated on 30 April 2021

Don’t panic. Forgetfulness is normal. There are many simple ways to improve your memory and prevent more severe memory loss in the future.

Combat forgetfulness with our list of things that help and hurt your memory.

Things that improve your memory

We have all had moments of forgetfulness from time to time, especially when we are juggling several things at a time and trying hard to stay on top of everything. While having these moments can be a completely normal occurrence, having a poor memory can definitely be frustrating. Current evidence tells us that apart from genetics, diet and lifestyle also have a major impact on memory. This is good news as there are habits and practices you can adopt to improve your memory.

Eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Did you know that about 60% of your brain is made of fat? Almost half of that is the omega-3 kind.

Eating baked or broiled fish such as salmon, trout and sardines boosts your brain with omega-3 fatty acids, which are used by your body to develop better learning and memory brain and nerve cells.

Additional health benefits from eating fatty fish are thought to include slower mental decline and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercising your brain

exercising the brain
Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs exercise. Research suggests keeping an active mind not only helps to boost memory but also prevent a decline later in life.

So what you can you do to keep your brain busy?

  • Learn a new language
  • Practise playing a musical instrument
  • Read more
  • Enrol in a study group or take up a new hobby
  • Play games with your children, friends or family
  • Complete crosswords or other brain puzzles
  • Play online memory games

Meditating

Meditation closely connects with memory, according to a recent study. Neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School have found that the art of meditation increases the amount of grey matter in an area of the brain associated with memory and decision making.

Think of mindfulness as exercise for your brain. Sit or lie down, relax, breathe naturally and focus on what you are doing and how your body moves as you breathe. Just 30 minutes of this every day is thought to boost your brainpower.

Keeping a memory notebook

keeping a memory journal
If you struggle to keep track of things, psychologists recommend writing your thoughts down in a memory notebook, and then referring to it throughout the day. Writing things down helps you to process the information in your brain and then recall it more easily.

This also goes for those long meetings at work – studies suggest taking notes by hand is better than using a laptop, as your brain has time to process the information as you write it down, meaning you can remember what was discussed more easily.

Snacking on blueberries

Blueberries are packed full of natural antioxidants, which help to protect your brain from inflammatory conditions and neurodegenerative diseases.

Several studies have concluded that eating blueberries regularly will help to boost memory and delay short-term memory loss in the long term. One such study saw participants drink wild blueberry juice for 12 weeks, which resulted not only in improved memory functions but also reduced depressive symptoms and healthier glucose levels.

For a quick brain boost, try sprinkling blueberries on your cereal, adding them to your morning juice or snacking on them at work.

Eating more fruits and vegetables

A large review of several studies involving more than 30,000 people found that those who ate more fruits and vegetables had lower risks of cognitive decline and dementia compared to those who consumed less of these nutritious foods.

Eat less added sugar

Research shows that a sugar-laden diet can lead to poor memory and reduced brain volume, particularly in the area of the brain that stores short-term memory.

One study, which assessed more than 4,000 people, for example, found that those with a higher intake of sugary beverages like soda had lower total brain volumes and poorer memories on average than those who consumed less sugar.

Maintain a healthy weight

Obesity can lead to insulin resistance and inflammation, which are factors that negatively impact the brain. It is also associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive condition with significantly worse performance on memory tests.

Get enough sleep

Not getting enough sleep can affect your memory. This is because, when you sleep, memory consolidation, a process in which short-term memories are strengthened and transformed into long-lasting memories takes place.

A study among a group of children found that those who were trained on memory tests and were tested after a night’s sleep performed better than those who were trained and tested on the same day by up to 20%.

Drink less alcohol

Excessive alcohol consumption alters the brain and results in memory deficits. This is because alcohol exhibits neurotoxic effects on the brain where repeated episodes of binge drinking can damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a vital role in memory.

Factors that affect your memory

Lack of sleep

Approximately 44% of Singaporeans sleep less than seven hours a night on weekdays, many preferring instead to stay up using their mobile phones in bed.

But sleep is essential to help your brain process information from the day and create new memories. Without enough sleep, you don’t consolidate these new memories, which makes it harder for you to absorb and recall information in the long run.

To keep your mind sharp, establish a regular sleeping pattern of up to 9 hours a night, and take the time to unwind properly before drifting off.

Eating late at night

Eating late at night

Staying up late to work, socialise or watch TV? You may be tempted to creep to the fridge for a late-night snack after an extra-long day. But we bet you didn’t know that eating when you are supposed to be sleeping can negatively affect your memory.

According to a recent study, disrupting your sleep patterns with food impacts both short- and long-term memory. So, as well as a regular sleep cycle, you should eat regularly and healthily to help preserve your brainpower.

Lack of exercise

Exercise isn’t just good for your energy levels, weight and overall health. It also helps to prevent memory loss and improve brain function.

As well as stimulating the release of chemicals in the brain that help to grow healthy brain cells, exercise is thought to create more volume in the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. It can also help to reduce stress levels and improve sleep quality, which we already know can negatively impact your brainpower.

Adults aged 18 – 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week.

Stress and anxiety

stressed at work
The release of the stress hormone cortisol is thought to reduce synapses in the brain, which can cause short-term memory loss.

That means low-level stress over your daily commute, a big presentation at work or your bank account may be affecting your brain’s ability to recall certain information.

To tackle this, consider trying meditation. If you are experiencing high stress levels or feelings of anxiety, consult your doctor.

Being overweight

Having a higher body mass index (BMI) could be hurting your memory, according to research by the University of Cambridge.

In the study, people with a BMI greater than 25 scored 15% lower in memory recall tests than people with a BMI under 25.

Not sure what your BMI is? You can calculate it here. Additional risks of a high BMI include conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure.

If you are concerned about your weight, consult your doctor.

Depression

People with depression have been reported to have memory problems, such as forgetfulness or confusion. Depression is also associated with short-term memory loss. Studies have found that people with depression could not identify objects on a screen that were identical to an object they have previously seen.

Memory loss due to depression can either improve or worsen depending on your emotional and mental state. Getting counselling and treatment for depression may be able to help with improving your memory.

Thyroid problems

Problems with your thyroid can also cause cognitive problems that look like symptoms of mild dementia.

People with hypothyroidism (insufficient production of thyroid hormone) report symptoms, such as memory problems, especially verbal memory, difficulty concentrating, and small changes in executive functioning, which include planning, impulse control and making decisions.

Those with hyperthyroidism (too much production of thyroid hormone) commonly exhibit poor concentration, slower reaction times, decreased spatial organisation and visual processing skills.

Research shows that in most cases cognitive functioning improves when thyroid disorders are treated.

Vitamin B12 deficiency

One of the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency is cognitive impairment including difficulty thinking or reasoning and memory loss.

Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in DNA and red blood cell production. The body does not produce this vitamin, therefore we get this nutrient from the diet.

When the body lacks vitamin B12, the production of healthy blood cells is reduced. This in turn results in the reduction of oxygen in the body, as blood cells are vital for carrying oxygen around the body.

The memory and thinking problems associated with vitamin B12 deficiency are thought to arise from the reduced amount of oxygen reaching the brain.

Alcohol abuse

Excessive intake of alcohol can affect both short and long term memory.

Some people experience what is called a blackout when they drink too much alcohol and don’t remember key details. This usually occurs after a person has had five or more drinks.

Among heavy alcohol drinkers, destruction of nerve cells can lead to significant memory problems, including progressive and permanent dementia. These effects on long-term memory loss are related to drinking 21 or more drinks a week for 4 years or more.

The brain of an older individual is more sensitive to alcohol. They are therefore more vulnerable to the short- and long-term effects of alcohol use on their brains.

Medication

Several prescription and over-the-counter medications can interfere with or cause loss of memory. These include:

  • Antidepressants. Tricyclic antidepressants are thought to cause memory problems by blocking the action of two key brain chemical messengers, serotonin and norepinephrine.
  • Antihistamines. First generation antihistamines inhibit the action of acetylcholine, which plays a role in the memory and learning centres of the brain.
  • Anti-anxiety medications. Benzodiazepines can dampen activity in key parts of the brain involved in the transfer of events from short-term to long-term memory.
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs. Statins may impair memory by depleting brain levels of cholesterol, which are vital to the formation of nerve cell connections.
  • Antiseizure drugs. Anticonvulsants limit seizures by suppressing the flow of signals within the central nervous system that can also result in memory loss.
  • Incontinence drugs. Anticholinergics block the action of acetylcholine that inhibit activity in the memory and learning centres of the brain.
  • Hypertension drugs. Beta-blockers are believed to cause memory problems by blocking the action of key brain chemical messengers, including norepinephrine and epinephrine.
  • Sleeping aids. Nonbenzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics act on brain pathways and chemical messengers that can lead to memory loss side effects.
  • Pain medications. Opioid analgesics act on chemical messengers in the brain to stem the flow of pain signals that are also involved in short- and long-term memory processing.

 

Article reviewed by Dr Lee Kim En, neurologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital

References

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11 Best Foods to Boost Your Brain and Memory. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from  https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-brain-foods

Brain Exercises and Dementia. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/guide/preventing-dementia-brain-exercises#1

Carlotti, P. (2016, March 15). Why Your Weight May Be to Blame for Your Horrible Memory. Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.menshealth.com/health/fat-and-memory-loss

Colwell, C.S., Flores, R. E., Ghiani, C. A., Jami, S.A., Loh, D. H., O’Dell, T. J. & Truong, D. (2015). Misaligned Feeding Impairs Memories. eLife.

Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills. Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110

Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science 25 (6).

Physical Activity and Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_adults/en/

Schulte, Brigid. (2015, May 26). Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain. Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/?utm_term=.d6cd5d0673e4

Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss. (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-deprivation-effects-on-memory#1

Ng, Abigail. (2017, January 11). Singaporeans Not Clocking Enough Sleep, Study Finds. Retrieved November 6, 2017, from http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/singaporeans-not-clocking-enough-sleep-study-finds

What is Obesity? (n.d.). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from https://www.healthline.com/health/obesity#overview1

14 Natural Ways to Improve Your Memory. (2018, March 26) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ways-to-improve-memory

Can Depression Cause Memory Loss? (2019, September 13) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/depression-and-memory-loss

Do Thyroid Disorders Cause Forgetfulness and Brain Fog? (2020, September 02) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.verywellhealth.com/do-thyroid-disorders-cause-forgetfulness-98837

What are the Symptoms of Vitamin B-12 Deficiency? (2019, January 23) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324265

Caution! These 10 Drugs Can Cause Memory Loss. (2016, February 09) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-2017/caution-these-10-drugs-can-cause-memory-loss.html

How Alcohol is Linked to Memory Loss. (2019, September 26) Retrieved March 17, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/alcoholism/alcohol-and-memory-loss

17.NOV.2017
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Lee Kim En
Neurologist
Mount Elizabeth Hospital

Dr Lee Kim En is a neurologist practising at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore. His clinical interests include intensive care medicine and stroke treatment.