How to Improve Your Memory (and Even Get a Little Smarter)

by Kate Luther on 13 January 2012 17 comments
Photo: Ramsey Beyer

My mother forgets things.

Not everything of course, but a lot. She can still recall the names of her friends from high school for example, and she remembers every embarrassing thing we did as kids... but ask her what we talked about five minutes ago, and you're out of luck.

What's really crazy is that I can't tell you when it happened. In fact, from my perspective, it was almost overnight. It's as if her brilliant mind blew a fuse — one minute she was fine and then — POP — the next minute she wasn't.

And now my mother forgets things.

But we're not beaten yet.

From mental exercises to food, I've been doing a lot of research into what helps people improve their memories, boost their brain power, and even stave off dementia. So whether you just want to get better at remembering names or want to keep your brain healthy for years to come, follow these suggestions. (See also: 5 Tips for Remembering Names)

Diet

The idea of eating for your intellectual health is nothing new, but this new development with my mom caused me to take a second, harder look at which foods do what.

The brain, it turns out, is made up of fatty tissue, so it requires quite a bit of fatty acids to function properly...but not just any fats will do. The popular Omega-3s are a good start, boosting your brain power as well as your immune system (while providing a whole host of other health benefits), so eat plenty of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and shrimp), nuts (walnuts and almonds are wonderful), and leafy greens.

Supplements are good too — certainly better than nothing — but experts still agree that adjusting your diet is the best way to get the nutrients your body needs.

And speaking of leafy greens, the darker ones, such as spinach and chard, do a great job of controlling your homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is a non-protein amino acid that in normal levels apparently causes no harm. But elevated levels have been associated with Alzheimer's Disease as well as cardiovascular disease and a few other serious health concerns. To control your homocysteine levels, you should eat plenty of the dark, leafy greens and take both folic acid and B-vitamin supplements. Incidentally, whole grains are a great source of B-vitamins and give you a healthy dose of magnesium too — an essential mineral that is crucial to living cells. Magnesium deficiencies have been linked to a wide variety of diseases and disorders, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, and yes, dementia.

Antioxidants also play a big part in your mental health, so think blueberries, garlic, olive oil, pomegranates, and those popular acai berries everyone is talking about. In general, the darker the fruit, the more potent the antioxidant properties, so eat from this food group as often as you like.

Cocoa power also contains a powerful antioxidant...more powerful than green tea even, so try sprinkling some on top of your coffee or mixing with your milk.

And since we're talking about coffee, having a few cups of java in the morning has actually been shown to be an effective deterrent against dementia and other cognitive diseases. And it's not just the caffeine — coffee apparently has some mystery compound in it, according to Science Daily Magazine, that interacts with the caffeine to protect against Alzheimer's. How much is enough? Studies show that moderate amounts — 4 to 5 cups a day — is sufficient to provide the health benefit.

And last but not least, that daily glass of red wine really does have its perks. In addition to helping ward off heart disease, red wine also contains some very powerful flavanoids that boost blood flow to the brain. Don't like red wine? Opt for grape juice instead.

Exercise

Getting as little as 20 minutes of physical activity each day can help ward off Alzheimer's and other cognitive diseases. Exercise delivers oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells and also increases your levels of BDNF, a chemical that encourages growth and survival of new neurons.

Exercise also improves the quality of your sleep, another must for those delicate neurons.

Stimulation

We've all heard the suggestions that exercising your brain is the easiest way to improve your mental power...and that little tidbit is actually true. But to get the most benefit, you need to engage in mental exercises that require your brain to work.

Learning a new language or a new musical instrument, for example, forces your brain to create new pathways and form new neurons. The result is improved mental capacity. Crossword puzzles and other brain games work equally well, but here's the catch...once you've mastered the task, it's no longer challenging, and your brain doesn't have to form those all-important neurons to keep up.

The key, then, is to keep your brain working by challenging yourself with new puzzles, activities, and areas of learning. The more you broaden your horizons, the better off your brain will be.

And in case you're wondering, yes — video games are beneficial too. In addition to increasing hand-eye coordination, those who play video games at least three to four hours a week have better depth perception, pattern recognition, and overall mental dexterity. You'll also find that you process information a little faster too.

Memory Hacks

Whether you're stepping out to the store or trying to remember the name of the person you just met, these quick tricks can help you remember information faster and easier.

Use Visual Cues

Linking an image to something you need to remember is an easy way to trigger that memory later when you need it. For example, my mother's license plate used to begin with PBJ. I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so I used that image to remember the number on her plates. And clearly it worked... that was some 15 years ago and I can still pull it up with no problem.

Use Acronyms

When I need a few things from the store, I try creating a word using the first letter of those items. For example, if I need milk, eggs, and tea, I might use the word "MET" to help me recall which items I need to buy. Obviously, sometimes the letters won't cooperate and try as you might, you just can't form an actual word. In those cases, improvise. I once remembered brisket, bread, cilantro, celery, and soda by memorizing BBCCS — as in BB's and CC's. The letters didn't have much meaning for me, but it was enough to help me remember what to buy.

Use Lists

Trying to remember three or four items at the grocery store is one thing...it's quite another when that list grows to 10 or 15. There's nothing wrong with making a list, and in fact, making those lists takes the pressure off of you to remember every little to-do or to-buy that might cross your path. Given the amount of information we process on a daily basis, that's probably a good thing.

Say It Out Loud

When meeting someone for the first time, say their name out loud as soon as you learn it. This helps reinforce the face (image) with the name (detail) for future recall. Incidentally, this little trick works equally well with non-human recall too, so feel free to employ this tactic anytime you need to remember a set of details or specifications.

Write It Down

If you read a chapter in a book, you can probably recite the overall gist of the content, but when you write it down, you'll find that your recall is much more detailed. This trick comes in quite handy when you're studying for a test, memorizing a speech, or just need to remember something important.

Obviously, there's no guarantee that you won't still forget things from time to time, and as of this writing, there's still no fool-proof cure for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. But we're getting there. And in the meantime, just think of how healthy and happy you'll be when you implement these new habits.

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Guest's picture
Thad P

Kate,

These are great tips for everyone, but if there is Alzheimer Disease in your family they are all the more important. My mom had it and my MIL has it.

There are many resources available to help with family members, but your list gives us a good list of things we can do to stay sharp.

Thanks again!

Kate Luther's picture

Hi Thad,

Thanks for your comment. I agree - it's extremely important to take steps now if Alzheimer's runs in your family. I did the research for my mom but I'm definitely implementing these tips into my own routine as well.

Plus - who doesn't want to be a little smarter right? :)

Guest's picture
Yazmin

I don't know if this is just something that has happened to me, but my cell phone has made me dumb and forgetful. Since it keeps track of number and addresses I tend to forget these things. What I've done is forced myself to dial a number instead of just clicking on someone's name. This has helped me improved my memory. I had to start this after I found myself stranded without knowing any numbers.

Kate Luther's picture

Hi Yazmin,

Thanks for your comment. Thats so very true... I've had the same issue myself but its hard to give up the automation. In fact, I love all my to-do list apps just because they help me remember things that I don't want to use "brain-space" for, but obviously there's a downside to becoming too reliant on that convenient technology :)

Kate

Guest's picture
Andrew

Thanks, Kate, for putting all of this together for us in one piece. I'll be referencing your article for years to come, and with these memory tips, I'll be able to remember where I placed your article.:o)

Kate Luther's picture

LOL... you need a list to remember where you keep your lists ;)

Guest's picture
Clay

I was under the impression that recent research indicates or has lead the researches to believe that the ration of omega 6's to omega 3's (of whatever relevant type) is what actually makes a difference in cognitive function. Since some foods like almonds are actually very high in omega 6's, they might hurt rather than help the ratio.*

This is like a year old memory of an article I read covering research in a publication that was more scientific in nature than Wise Bread but still a popular source, so take this with a grain of salt.

Kate Luther's picture

Hi Clay,

Thanks for your comment.

You're right - research does show a link between cognitive function and our intake of omega 6s and yes, almonds do have a high content of those. But the research also show that some omega 6s - especially those that are bound up in whole foods with other nutritional content (i.e., antioxidants, omega 3s, minerals, vitamins, protein, etc.) are okay and in fact, can reduce overall inflammation and risk of various diseases.

What the studies reveal is that our ancestors were virtually free of diseases like cancer and heart disease and that at that time, their ratio of omega 6s to omega 3s was between 1:1 to 4:1. When the industrial revolution kicked in, we skewed that ratio by increasing our consumption of high omega 6 foods like vegetable oil and that's a diet we continue to follow today.

In addition, eating "damaged fats" such as roasted almonds would be worse for you than eating those almonds in their natural state. Obviously, as the research changes, so will our understanding of what works and what doesn't, but for now, the theory is that almonds and other nuts are good for you and your brain... they just shouldn't be your primary food source.

Guest's picture

Ha, this is nice, because I've been looking for ways to both improve my memory and get smarter while I'm applying for grad school. My diet has room for improvement, as does my goal to learn Spanish "sometime".

I'm right with you, Yazmin, I can save and keep track of just about everything on my smart phone. I'm pretty sure I've become waaaay to dependent on it. I need to put some of these ideas to work to keep my brain working.

Kate Luther's picture

LOL... you're to-do list sounds like mine... I've got a bunch of "sometime" items on there :)

Guest's picture

Kate,

Great tips. I hear ads on the radio for miracle drugs to help you improve your memory all the time so it's great to see some info on the actual vitamins and foods you can consume.

I love the tip on stimulation. Suduko is another game that helps work the mind - and it's addictive too.

Great advice,
James
http://blog.jvf.com

Kate Luther's picture

Thanks James - and I agree. Sudoku is both challenging and addictive... a great way to give your brain a workout.

Guest's picture

True. My mother used to remember that place and the date she meet my dad, but always forget to take her medications. My mother by the way is 71.

Guest's picture
Bruce

I have learned a much about the relationship between exercise and mental performance, so I attached my laptop to my stationary bicycle. :)

Guest's picture

It is amazing that I used most of these techniques during my school years, and as a result I was always the first in the class. By the way, now I am a medical doctor.

Kate Luther's picture

I agree - many of these tactics sounded much like the study habits I employed back in school. And that got me to thinking about age-related memory problems in a different way.

In school, we used our brains in a very specific and consistent way... we were constantly forcing it to memorize, analyze and calculate. But when we get older - as in my mother's case - we don't do those mental exercises anymore... at least not with the same rigorous consistency that we adhered to in school. Maybe reinstating some of those study habits now will stave off dementia and senility later in life.

Guest's picture
Karen Mok

I don't really want to advocate drug use here in a public forum, but caffeine has always done wonders for my memory and mental performance... the more the better!