How to Improve Your Memory

Wish your powers of recall were as powerful as this elephant’s? Here are nine mind-sharpening strategies that can help.

 

  • Alice Oglethorpe

Memory lapses can be both embarrassing (what’s my neighbor’s kid’s name again?) and troubling (is senility coming on?). But a few slipups don’t necessarily doom you to a future of utter forgetfulness. A memory is made by linking two or more of the 100 billion nerve cells in your brain, called neurons, then solidifying the connection so you can use it later, says Neal Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, in Washington, D.C. And “your brain continues to develop neurons and build new connections to strengthen memory as you age, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity,” says Brianne Bettcher, a neuropsychology fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, Memory and Aging Center. “So it’s never too late to improve your powers of recall.” That’s where these nine strategies come in. They’ll help you hone your memory today and keep it robust for years to come.

1. Get More Sleep

Experts agree that if you do only one thing to improve your memory, getting more sleep should be it. “Sleep is key time for your brain to solidify the connections between neurons,” says Barnard. In a study published in the journal Sleep Medicine, researchers asked subjects to perform some memory tasks and then either take a nap or stay awake. The people who napped remembered more of the tasks they had performed than did those who stayed up. Rule of thumb: Get seven to nine hours of sleep total each day. And, yes, naps count.

2. Jog Your Memory

Literally. Running—or biking or swimming or doing any other type of cardiovascular activity—for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week has been proven to help you remember things better. Raising your heart rate gets blood flowing to your brain, enlarges the hippocampus (the most vital part of the brain for memory), and increases the secretion of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein necessary for long-term memory. Also, “cardiovascular exercise can actually cause new connections to sprout between neurons in the hippocampus,” says Peter J. Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School.

3. Have Some Food (and Drink) for Thought

Your brain can’t function properly without essential nutrients and chemical compounds. “Blueberries are the top source of substances called anthocyanins, which are brain-boosting antioxidants,” says Joy Bauer, a registered dietitian based in New York City and the author of The Joy Fit Club ($28, amazon.com). “Studies have shown that anthocyanins shield the brain against inflammation and oxidation, both of which can damage neurons and make them less effective at communicating with one another.” Bauer also recommends fitting in leafy green vegetables as often as possible. “Long-term studies have shown that people who eat large amounts of spinach, kale, and other leafy greens have less age-related memory decline, thanks to phytonutrients like vitamin C,” she says. You might also want to start enjoying a drink with dinner. Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women who had one drink a day were 20 percent less likely than teetotalers or heavier drinkers to experience a decline in their cognitive function, including the ability to remember points of a paragraph that had been read to them 15 minutes earlier. The researchers believe this may be because moderate alcohol consumption elevates levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and improves the condition of the blood that reaches the brain.