If you worry that your memory isn’t what it once was, especially as you age, you’re not alone. Many people believe that memory loss is just a fact of life as you get older, but when I visit my 96-year-old Nana her memory is like an elephant! There are a number of lifestyle habits that are not only good for your health, but may actually help protect your memory from decline. Here are some of our best tips for improving and protecting your memory:
- Get enough sleep. While sleep may seem unrelated to your memory, it’s important for a couple of reasons. Your memory actually has three basic functions. The first is acquisition, which is when you’re exposed to new information. If you’re focused and paying attention to the new information, you’re far more likely to remember it than if you just hear it and let it go. Your brain works to make this new information permanent during a process called consolidation, which is where sleep comes in. Most of this consolidation work is done while you sleep, and some research suggests that dreams actually play a role. The third memory function is recall. When you’re trying to remember a fact or someone’s name, that’s the function of recall, and how well you recall a memory depends on both the strength of acquisition and consolidation. Not getting much sleep? Your consolidation function and ultimately recall may be affected, and not in a good way.
- Be physically active. We all know exercise is good for you, but when it comes to memory it helps in a couple of ways. The movement boosts blood flow throughout your body, and brings nutrients and oxygen to your brain that are needed for good cognitive function. Exercise also reduces inflammation and stimulates the growth of new blood vessels in your brain. Finally, being physically active reduces stress, which can interfere with memory recall.
- Check your diet. While your body needs a certain amount of fat to be healthy, the kind of fat seems to make a difference when it comes to your memory. Research suggests that a diet high in saturated fats (animal-based) tends to raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of artery damage. It may also speed up the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain responsible for memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, aim for a Mediterranean-style diet that’s high in vegetables and fruit, more fish than meat, olive oil, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans and avoiding things like sugar and alcohol. If you need some guidance in getting your diet balanced and on track, our acupuncturists, naturopathic physician or holistic nutritionist are able to help you.
- Learn a new skill. Research has discovered that learning something new can slow memory decline. Learning a new language or skill, such as playing an instrument, photography or computer coding engages more of your working and long-term memory. In fact, when compared to a research control group that did crossword puzzles, study participants who took up a new skill showed significant improvement in memory.
- It’s hard to believe that something as pleasurable as reading a book can help your memory, but doing so actually uses a number of different parts of your brain. Reading taps into vision, language and associative learning and stimulates parts of your memory that you haven’t used for a while. Simply put, reading can activate long-buried memories.
- Calm your mind. When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode. This means that it ramps up some body systems that are needed in the immediate moment. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your pupils dilate to let in more light and your body is on edge ready to act. However, other systems that aren’t needed in the moment get put on the back burner until the threat has passed, such as immunity, digestion and tissue repair. This also includes memory. The fallout is that if you’re constantly stressed out, your memory is taking a hit. Some solutions to bring calm into your life include Yoga, mindfulness meditation and acupuncture. That’s right, acupuncture can help your memory through stress reduction, because it not only calms the fight or flight response, but it also increases the circulation of calm-producing endorphins in your brain. In addition, an actual acupuncture session involves resting comfortably for 20-30 minutes, which also helps relieve stress.
- Light up your memory through cold laser therapy. This is a kind of light therapy produced by a low-level laser that gently penetrates deep into your body’s tissues to cause beneficial changes at the cellular level. Research is beginning to show that cold laser therapy can improve the electrochemical activity in your brain and boost cognitive functions, including learning, memory and attention. And cold laser therapy is available at BodaHealth!
In some ways, your memory is like a muscle. If it’s not used and cared for it will get out of shape. A little exercise, good sleep and the right diet, plus some lifestyle tweaks can make your memory more effective and preserve its function as you get older.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.