Does it bug you when you forget where you’ve put your keys or phone? And when you realise you’ve missed some items off your shopping list? Or that work task you should have got done today completely slips your mind, and then pops back up just as you’re about to go to sleep?
That’ll be your memory. We all have one, but as we get older, it’s possible for our memory to not quite be what it used to be. By the time people are in their 80s, it’s possible for them to experience some sort of decline in their cognitive function.1 Genetics can also play a role in memory loss, especially in serious neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease.2
How much should we be able to remember?
It’s possible to remember some things and not others, regardless of our age. Although how much we can remember at any given time has been proven to be different in different studies. According to some research, we can memorise up to four different things in our short-term memory.
Meanwhile, other research has revealed it’s possible to retain up to seven things in our mind for between 20 and 30 seconds. Meanwhile, a famous paper published by the psychologist, George Miller, in 1959, found that the average short-term memory capacity stood at around five and nine different items.
How does our memory work?
No matter how many different things we try to remember, it’s our brain that makes our memory work. In particular, it’s something called the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain that’s specifically responsible for organising, filing away and recalling our short-term and long-term memory.
The hippocampus is part of our limbic system, which is linked to our emotions, and is found in both sides of our brain. But it can start to deteriorate over time, which means it can take longer to remember things or some memories may not get recalled at all.3
Why is my memory so bad?
As we mentioned above, memory loss can be caused by our age, as it’s part and parcel of getting older for some people. According to guidance issued by the NHS, it can also be triggered by things, such as:
- Stress – can cause lots of different mental symptoms. For instance, finding it difficult to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed, struggling to make decisions and forgetting things.4
- Anxiety – can be mild or severe and means it can be difficult to control your worries, which can make it difficult to remember things because your mind is consumed with other thoughts and feelings.5
- Sleeping problems – not sleeping enough can make you feel tired, which means you can potentially struggle to concentrate and remember things during the day.6
Feeling tired stressed and/or anxious are three common causes of memory loss. They’re also treatable too. (Note: if you are experiencing significant on-going memory loss, get it checked by a medical professional. Do not try to identify what’s causing it yourself).7
How can I improve my memory and concentration?
If your memory isn’t as good as it used to be and you want to make it better, don’t assume that you can’t and you’ve got to simply live with how it is now. It is possible to sharpen your memory – with the right stimulation, your brain can create new neural pathways, alter existing ways of thinking and learn new ways of thinking (and remembering!)8
There are so many things you can do to help improve your memory and concentration, way too many to cover in this article. But what we have done, is scoured all of the many different memory-boosting tips and tricks that are out there, and created a shortlist of our favourites to help you get started:
Memory booster 1: Eat less sugar
Research has found that eating lots of sugar can lead to poor memory and reduced brain volume in the hippocampus area of the brain that we briefly talked you through a bit earlier.
According to one study of 4,000+ people, those who consumed more sugary beverages had lower total brain volumes and poorer memories on average, compared to people who consumed less sugar.9
Memory booster 2: Sleep well
How many hours of sleep do you get on average every night? More than 95% of adults need between 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep every evening in order to avoid sleep deprivation.
Not getting enough sleep can impact our concentration, creativity, how good/bad we are at solving problems and issues and, of course, how well we remember things. Research has also found that sleep doesn’t just help us recall memories during the day, but plays a vital role as we sleep. It helps us to consolidate our memories while we’re sleeping deeply.10
Memory booster 3: Be mindful
Focusing on the here and now, i.e. being mindful, as we go about our daily lives can lower our stress levels, improving memory and concentration, in the process.
A study of 293 psychology students found that those who took part in mindfulness training had improved recognition-memory performance when recalling objects compared to students who hadn’t taken part in any mindfulness training.11 (For more on mindfulness read, ‘Mindfulness tips: 10 ways to be more mindful.’)
Memory booster 4: Cut the carbs
Another diet-related memory technique. Eating lots of large of refined carbohydrates, such as cakes, cereal, cookies, white rice and white bread, can potentially impact your memory.
It’s down to the fact carbs have a high glycaemic index, which means the body digests them quickly, which makes our blood sugar levels spike. Studies of carbs in relation to memory have found diets that are high in refined carbs have been linked to dementia, cognitive decline and reduced cognitive function.12
Memory booster 5: Repeat and remember
If you’re trying to learn and remember something new, repeating whatever it is you are trying to memorise over-and-over again, can make sure it gets logged in your brain.
But how many times is enough? Research has found that you need to repeat something 17 times in order for it to get logged in your memory on a long-term basis. And you need to repeat it in different ways, e.g. write it down, say it out loud, turn it into something visual, in order for that particular thing to be remembered. There are some tricks you can follow to make this process a little easier, two of which we’ve mentioned below.13
Memory booster 6: Use memory tools
Mnemonics, e.g. songs/rhymes, acronyms, abbreviations, are one of the commonly-used memory tools and have long been considered as being an effective way of helping teach students. They’re particularly useful for trying to remember more than one thing, especially long old lists.14
Most mnemonics involve a combination of images, senses, emotions and patterns that tap into various elements of our brain.15 Here are a couple of examples – ‘Naughty Elephant Squirts Water’ to remember North, East, South, West, and ’30 days hath September….’ to recall how many days there are in the month.
Memory booster 7: Use groups or chunks
Some people find it easier to organise and absorb information when it’s organised in chunks or groups. A common example of this is by taking a phone number and remembering it as smaller groups of numbers. So 1234567891011 becomes 12345 678 91011.16
If you’d like to have a go at chunking, follow these 3 steps:
- Break down whatever it is you’re trying to remember into smaller topics.
- Look for connections between the topics. What is the common theme/pattern?
- Keep repeating each chunk periodically.17
Memory booster 8: Manage stress
Stress isn’t good for the human brain. In fact, chronic stress levels can destroy brain cells and destroy the hippocampus. Stress has also been linked to memory loss in studies, which includes research carried out by Alzheimer’s Research UK.
They studied 1,320 people with an average age of 58, who provided information about their lifetime stressful experiences and took part in tests of memory and thinking. The research found that ‘stressful experiences are equivalent to more than 4 years’ cognitive ageing.’18
Things you can do to try and reduce your stress levels:
- Be realistic about what you can get done in a day.
- Take breaks.
- Be open about how you feel, e.g. if you feel stressed.
- Create some ‘you’/down time.
- Focus on thing at a time.19
Memory booster 9: Eat ‘brain healthy’ food
You’ll know from tips 1 and 4 that what we eat can potentially impact our memories. Just as cutting out certain food from our diet can be beneficial, eating more of certain food can have a positive effect too.
Eating more of the following food, also known as the MIND diet, has been found to be effective at slowing down ageing of the brain. In fact, a study of people, who followed the MIND diet, found that their brains were around eight years younger than those who hadn’t been followed it:
- Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale.
- Olive oil.
- Vegetables, carrots, broccoli, butternut squash and red peppers.
- Beans, soybeans and lentils.20
Memory booster 10: Perfect your techniques
You’ll no doubt remember from school that we all learn differently. Some people learn and remember better by writing them down in a book or on sticky notes. Other people remember best if they say it out loud or repeat it over-and-over in their mind.
There’ll be a certain way that you remember too. Knowing what it is will help you to hold on to existing memories, while also remembering new things too. Find the technique, or techniques, that work best for you and perfect them.21
So, there you have it, some practical measures you can go away and apply to help fine tune your memory, no matter how old you may be. For more insight on improving memory through your diet, check out this article, ‘Foods that support your memory.
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile
Last updated: 27 November 2020