Memory is the foundation of a stable, productive life. If you can’t remember events from the past, it’s hard to stay on track.
This is why Alzheimer’s — a condition marked by progressively increasing memory loss — is such a debilitating disease.
But even those without existing dementia would do well to improve their memory. Improving your memory improves your capacity to learn.
Here you’ll learn nine science-backed methods for improving memory at any age. Barring any medical contraindications, implement them as you see fit.
When it comes to preventing cognitive decline, exercise sits atop the list. Aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, swimming, and biking also appears to improve brain function after dementia has set in.
In one study, 76 people with Alzheimer’s disease were split into two groups (cardio and non-cardio) for 26 weeks[*]. The analysis revealed that, as cardiovascular fitness improved, memory improved along with it.
But regular exercise doesn’t only help the older set. One review of 14 published trials found that “exercise appears to play a pronounced effect on memory function among young to middle-aged adults”[*].
As a side benefit, physical exercise also boosts blood flow to your brain. Get after it.
It’s useful to think of your brain like a muscle. Every time you learn a new skill, picture your brain lifting a miniature barbell.
Learning is like exercise for your brain. Trying a new sport, reading a book, learning code, working through a crossword puzzle, developing a mnemonic to remember a new name — all these activities boost your mental game.
Learning a complex physical skill has an especially pronounced effect. For example, researchers from Germany found that teaching elderly people an elaborate dance routine reversed signs of aging in the hippocampus — the area of the brain that encodes both short and long-term memory[*].
If dancing isn’t your thing, you can always choose another activity. Just make sure it’s something new.
Many researchers believe Alzheimer’s disease is driven by insulin resistance in the brain[*]. The term “brain diabetes” has been coined to capture this phenomenon.
How does insulin resistance develop? Think high sugar diets. Here’s how that works:
- Eating lots of sugar raises blood sugar levels.
- Rising blood sugar tell your pancreas to release tons of insulin, your blood sugar boss.
- When too much insulin gets released, your cells — including your brain cells — stop listening to insulin. (This is insulin resistance).
- More insulin is needed to do the same job, and insulin levels continue to rise.
Here’s the thing. High insulin (hyperinsulinemia) has been shown to predict cognitive issues in the offspring of dementia patients[*].
Along with driving insulin resistance, sugar may also impair memory directly. For instance, one study showed that drinking a sugar-infused beverage significantly decreased cognitive abilities on a variety of memory tests compared to placebo[*].
One night of sleep deprivation (say, four hours of sleep) makes it hard to recall information. You might forget your keys, your lunch, or even your lucky water bottle.
When researchers deprived people of sleep for 36 hours, the sleepy subjects couldn’t even retain emotionally-charged images in their memory banks[*]. Adequate sleep, it’s true, is critical for the formation, consolidation, and storage of new memories.
Scientists have long known that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep plays a role in memory. If you suppress REM sleep (pharmacologically or through mild touching), you make people very forgetful[*].
Recently, however, it’s become clear that deep, slow-wave sleep is important too. During deep sleep, new memories pop out of your brain, then are transferred to the hippocampus for memory consolidation[*].
Finally, sleep activates your glymphatic system — a fluid-based cleaning network for your brain[*]. Researchers believe that regularly activating this system by getting plenty of deep sleep helps reduce Alzheimer’s risk.
If you scan the brains of long-term meditators, you find something interesting. These folks have bigger brains. Bigger hippocampi, at least.
That’s right. Serious meditation practitioners have more gray matter in brain regions associated with memory making[*].
More practically, one review found that meditation may improve short-term memory in both young and old brains. It may even prevent cognitive decline[*].
So, which form of meditation is best for memory?
Hard to say, but there is considerable data on mindfulness—an ancient form of Buddhist meditation designed to enhance present-moment awareness. One study, for instance, found that one semester of mindfulness training improved learning effectiveness, attention, and memory in Taiwenness students[*].
The instructions for mindfulness meditation are fairly simple. You begin by focusing on your breath, and then progress to thoughts, sensations, and emotions as they arise in consciousness. This brain training, however, is harder than it sounds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that support brain health, among other functions. Omega-3s, you might be surprised to learn, comprise a large chunk of your brain weight.
The essential omega-3s EPA and DHA are found in marine life such as salmon, sardines, and algae. Consuming both EPA and DHA may improve memory.
In one placebo-controlled study, supplementing with 2.2 grams of fish oil per day improved markers of memory in those aged 50 to 75[*]. Another study found that EPA (but not DHA) enhanced short-term memory in young adults[*].
Other research, however, suggests that DHA is more important for Alzheimer’s prevention[*]. Alzheimer’s patients tend to have lower DHA levels, and supplementing with DHA can reduce brain inflammation — a hallmark of dementia.
Along with fish oil, curcumin — a supplement derived from turmeric — features prominently in the dementia prevention literature.
Researchers are excited about curcumin. Curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which may reduce the brain inflammation linked to cognitive decline.
Curcumin also binds to heavy metals like mercury and lead in the brain, neutralizing their toxicity. Some researchers believe this could reduce Alzheimer’s risk[*].
The human data on curcumin is mixed. In one study, healthy adults showed improvements in working memory (a type of short term memory) after a month of curcumin supplementation. But in other populations, like those with existing Alzheimer’s, curcumin had no measurable effects on cognition[*].
On a high-carb diet, your brain relies entirely on glucose for fuel. But when you fast, your sugar supply runs lower, you begin burning fat, and your brain starts using ketones (a byproduct of fat burning) as a backup energy source.
When your brain uses ketones, it uses them cleanly. In other words, very few inflammatory compounds are produced. These compounds, called reactive oxygen species (ROS), are linked to cognitive decline[*].
Also, the human brain loses the ability to metabolize glucose over time. This doesn’t happen with ketones[*]. Ketones effectively fuel the aging brain.
In animals, intermittent fasting was shown to slow memory loss in Alzheimer’s-prone rats. There’s less data in humans, but one study found that a 48-hour fast enhanced “mental flexibility” (the ability to task switch) in weight lifters[*].
The ketogenic diet is a low-carb eating plan that provokes similar changes to fasting. These changes include lower blood sugar, lower insulin, and increased ketone production — all of which are good for your brain.
Rats fed a ketogenic diet, it’s been shown, are better able to navigate a complex maze — a task which leans heavily on working memory[*].
The human data is also encouraging. In one study, elderly adults got a memory boost after ingesting medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that stimulates ketone production[*].
Based on mechanistic data and a few case reports, many researchers believe a ketogenic diet could be therapeutic for Alzheimer’s[*]. More research is needed. Stay tuned.
Improving Memory At Any Age
It pays to improve your memory. Better memory enhances performance in most aspects of life.
Start with the items on this list. Get enough sleep, exercise regularly, learn new things, meditate, supplement wisely, and consider fasting or a keto diet.
If you can’t recall all nine ways to improve your memory, don’t sweat it. You can always return here for a quick review session.