Most of us worry about experiencing memory problems as we get older. Here’s what you need to know about how memory works, and how you can help support it
Written by Beth Gibbons on March 24, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Nihara Krause on March 27, 2019
Confusing appointment dates or becoming more forgetful? We all worry about losing our memory as we get older, but memory problems can be caused by a number of different factors and are not necessarily a sign of something more serious such as dementia.
What is memory?
Memory is your mind’s ability to store and remember information, and it involves a complex network of neural pathways spanning the entire brain.1
It’s thought there are three main memory stores in your brain:2,3
- sensory register – information from your senses stays here for just a split second
- working memory – your short-term memory helps process information and hang on to memories for up to 30 seconds
- long-term memory – with an unlimited capacity for storage, memories retained here can last a lifetime
How does memory work?
Firstly, information from your senses is converted by neurons into electrical impulses and chemical signals – a process known as encoding.4 These signals travel to your brain’s hippocampus, where important information from your working memory is filtered. New neuron connections are created to house this important information – and a shiny, new long-term memory is born.5
What can go wrong with your memory?
Memory problems are not automatically a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Some common causes of memory changes include:6,7
- anxiety or depression
- hormonal changes, such as pregnancy or menopause
- some medications
- a nutritional deficiency, like vitamin B-12
- medical conditions, like an underactive thyroid
- drinking too much alcohol
Many of these causes are short term, and your memory should get back on track once you tackle them. If you’re experiencing on-going issues with your memory, see your GP. They can help rule out any of the causes above, and may recommend any treatment, such as changing your medication, if necessary.
Our memory also starts to decline as a natural part of ageing. As we get older, the connections between brain cells can weaken, and memory can falter. One theory is that this is due to cell loss in a region of the brain responsible for making acetylcholine, a chemical vital for learning and memory.8 Another issue is that the brain naturally shrinks as we age.9
Is it an ageing memory or the start of dementia?
We all have memory lapses from time to time, and these often get worse with age. But being a bit forgetful isn’t necessarily a sign of dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease, for example, accelerated ageing of the brain makes it hard to retain information to such a degree that it affects everyday life, not just the occasional blip.
The condition also affects other cognitive functions such as decision-making, time management and judgement.10 A deterioration in memory is just one symptom of dementia but if you also experience these other cognitive issues, make an appointment for an assessment with your doctor.
How to keep your memory healthy
Making certain lifestyle changes can support your memory, and may help slow or even reverse the brain changes associated with ageing:
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, helping to nourish and protect your little grey cells.11 This makes it more efficient, so thinking and memory is improved.
A good night’s sleep is incredibly important, as it allows the brain to process memories more effectively.12 In a small 2015 study by Boston scientists, 14 people were better able to remember a list of faces and names if they had slept beforehand.13
Nourish your memory
Tuck into fruit and veg – many contain plant chemicals called flavonoids that can encourage new nerve cell growth in the hippocampus.14 Indeed, a 2018 study in Neurology reported that older people who ate at least one serving of leafy green vegetables a day performed better in memory tests than those who rarely ate veg.15 Cranberries, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, spinach and broccoli are all rich in flavonoids.
Up your omega-3 intake – oily fish or flaxseeds contain omega-3 fatty acids that can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain, according to a 2015 Australian study.16 Be aware that omega-3 can interact with some medications including blood-thinners, so talk to your GP if you’ve got any questions.
Try ginkgo biloba – a 2011 report in in Phytomedicine found the herb improved memory recall in healthy, middle-aged people.17 It’s thought that ginkgo biloba can increase blood flow to the brain and strengthen communication between neurons.18
Stimulate your mind
Volunteers using an online brain-training program for 15 minutes, five times a week, significantly improved their memory compared with a control group, according to a 2015 study in PLoS One.19 Having a hobby or hanging out with friends may be effective, too – American researchers say older people who are socially active or have favourite hobbies are less likely to develop memory issues.20
Manage your stress levels
In a 2018 study in Neurology, middle-aged adults with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol performed much worse in memory tasks.21 Take time to relax every day and consider meditation; not only does it lower levels of cortisol,22 a 2005 US study found it increases thickness of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with memory.23,24
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. Science Daily. How Does Memory Work?
2. Saul McLeod. Simply Psychology. Multi Store Model of Memory
3. Saul McLeod. Simply Psychology. Working Memory
4. Öğmen H, Herzog MH. A New Conceptualization of Human Visual Sensory-Memory
5. Dean Burnett. The Guardian. What happens when you make a memory?
6. Harvard Health Publishing. 7 common causes of forgetfulness
7. National Institute on Ageing. Do Memory Problems Always Mean Alzheimer’s Disease?
8. Winblad B, et al. Memory function and brain biochemistry in normal aging and in senile dementia
9. Catharine Paddock. Medical News Today. Human Brain Shrinks With Age, While Chimp Brain Does Not
10. As Source 7
11. Harvard Health Publishing. 12 Ways To Keep Your Brain Young
12. Rasch B, Born J. About sleep’s role in memory
13. Maurer L, et al. A new face of sleep: The impact of post-learning sleep on recognition memory for face-name associations
14. Spencer JP. The impact of flavonoids on memory: physiological and molecular considerations
15. Morris MC, et al. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline
16. Thomas J, et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Early Prevention of Inflammatory Neurodegenerative Disease: A Focus on Alzheimer’s Disease
17. Kaschel R. Specific memory effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 in middle-aged healthy volunteers
18. Joseph Nordqvist. Medical News Today. Health benefits of Ginkgo biloba
19. Hardy JL, et al. Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial
20. Ashley Strickland. CNN. Could Creativity And Socialising Preserve Your Memory?
21. Echouffo-Tcheugui JB, et al. Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study
22. Sarah Knapton. The Telegraph. Mindfulness meditation lowers stress hormone and decreases inflammation in body, scientists find.
23. Lazar SW, et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness
24. Lara AH, Wallis JD. The Role of Prefrontal Cortex in Working Memory: a Mini Review