Find out the best ways on how to improve memory with our guide. Including tips on short and long term memory and the important foods
Most of us can lose our train of thought midway through a sentence but lots of us just put it down to having a ‘senior moment’.
But absent-mindedness is not just about ‘senior moments’, says neuropsychologist Dr Joanna Iddon, co-author of Memory Boosters.
“In a recent study of healthy adults, the average number of memory slips, like putting the coffee jar in the fridge, was around six per week, irrespective of age, gender and intelligence,” says Dr Iddon.
“In fact, it was the younger, busier people that were the most absent-minded.
“Remembering is an active process and making the most of your memory involves paying better attention, planning and organising.
“Luckily, there are some tricks and strategies to help you banish those thingumabob moments.”
30 tips on how to improve your memory
1. What is the best supplement for memory?
There is no cast iron scientific proof that any supplements can help improve your memory, but there are some supplements that it has been suggested may have some potential to improve cognition.
Vitamin E may not decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but it may slow its progression. According to the NHS, if you take vitamin E supplements, don’t take too much as this could be harmful. Taking 540mg or less a day of vitamin E supplements is unlikely to cause any harm.
Studies have suggested that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acid from foods such as cold-water fish, plant and nut oils, and English walnuts are strongly linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. However, there are not enough studies currently available to say whether omega-3 supplements will give these benefits.
2. What is the best vitamin for concentration and memory?
Vitamin B12 is thought to help you with memory and concentration by maintaining your myelin sheath, which is a substance that is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system
Without vitamin B12, this breaks down, and it causes brain cells responsible for cognition to no longer function properly. Long-term vitamin B12 deficiency can cause memory loss and dementia.
3. Associate the memory with your environment
So if, for example, a joke is learned in the presence of a particular smell, that same aroma may cue the memory for that joke.
“More simply, when in an exam, I advise my students to visualise the place in which they were revising as a cue to memory,” says Andrew Johnson, memory specialist and lecturer in psychology at Bournemouth University.
4. Clench your fist
Research suggests that balling up your right hand and squeezing it tightly actually makes it easier to memorise phone numbers or shopping lists.
Later, when you want to retrieve the information, clench the left fist. Researchers think the movements activate brain regions key to the storing and recall of memories.
5. Learn something before bed
“The best way to ‘consolidate a memory’ is to go through the information just before going to sleep,” explains Dr Johnson.
“This is because there are fewer ‘new’ interfering memories so you will remember it better the next day.”
6. Aah! Look at cute kitten pictures
Looking at cute images of baby animals doesn’t just make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, it can also help the brain to concentrate.
Researchers at Hiroshima University in Japan split 132 students into three groups and gave each one tasks such as playing the game Operation – where body parts are removed without making contact with a livewire – or finding a number in a random sequence.
After one attempt, they spent several minutes looking at cute pictures of kittens or puppies and did it again.
Performance scores improved by an average of 44%.
7. Drinking more milk can improve your mind
Scientists asked 972 people to fill in detailed surveys on their diets and to complete eight rigorous tests to check their concentration, memory and learning abilities.
Adults who consumed dairy products at least five or six times a week did far better in memory tests compared with those who rarely ate or drank them.
8. Can exercise improve your memory?
Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function and is particularly good at enhancing memory. Exercise is also thought to encourage the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus – an area of the brain important in memory and learning.
9. Wiggle your eyes
Forget what it looks like to others!
Wiggling your eyes from side to side for 30 seconds could be the key to boosting concentration.
That’s because the left and right sides of the brain perform different functions and improving communication between them can bolster mental performance.
Scientists at Manchester Metropolitan University got volunteers to listen to recordings of words then either wiggle their eyes horizontally for 30 seconds, vertically for 30 seconds, or just stare ahead.
The horizontal movement group recalled more words than the other two, according to results in the journal Brain and Cognition.
10. Forget the nightcap
Alcohol may help you fall asleep but it leads to a disrupted night’s rest – and has a detrimental effect on concentration and memory, say researchers at The London Sleep Centre.
And the more you drink, the less deep – or REM – sleep you get.
11. Say it out loud
This is the easiest of all methods for remembering everything from where you put your car keys to what you need from the shop to revising for a test, say memory experts.
Studies found saying what you want to remember out loud to yourself – or even mouthing it – will help with recall.
12. Don’t swallow it whole
When someone gives you a phone number, use ‘chunking’ as a way of remembering it, suggests Dr Chris Moulin, from the University of Leeds.
“So when given a string of numbers to remember such as 123957001066, break it down into 12 39 57 00 10 66 or even 1239 5700 1066.
Try to chunk numbers according to something you find meaningful, like the age of someone you know, an address or a famous date (1066 Battle of Hastings) then they form a story to help you remember.”
13. Quit smoking
It can cause significant damage to your memory, say researchers at Northumbria University.
When 69 students aged 18 to 25, were asked to memorise a list of tasks, those who had never smoked did best, remembering to complete 81% of the tasks.
The smokers – on an average of 60 cigarettes a week – managed to get through only 59%.
A separate study at King’s College London found that middle-aged smokers performed less well on tests compared with those without the tobacco habit.
14…And cannabis too
Adolescents who are regular users of cannabis are at risk of permanent damage to their intelligence, attention span and memory, according to the results of a new long-term study, which followed over 1,000 people from birth to the age of 38.
15. Give us a cue
If there’s something you have to do every day at a specific time and often forget, a technique called implementation intentions is very simple, says Dr Moulin.
For example, say to yourself ‘whenever I have my first cup of tea in the morning, I will also take my pills’. Or ‘when the lunchtime news finishes, I’ll do my exercises’.
16. Use imagery
One type of mnemonic – or memory aid – relies on imagery rather than words.
“A classic way of remembering a person’s name is to try and imagine it (or something associated to it) on the person’s face,” says Dr Moulin.
So, if you meet John Bridge – imagine a bridge on his face. Psychologists have found that the more bizarre and vivid the image the better it works.
17. Drink green tea
Chinese researchers say regularly drinking it could improve your memory and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease thanks to its key ingredient – the organic molecule EGCG (epigallocatechin-3 gallate), an antioxidant that protects against age-related degenerative illnesses.
18. Make it mean something
While the digits 5019114421945 are hard to remember as they are meaningless, try assigning each set of three digits a meaning, advises Dr Moulin.
Try Levis, a Porsche, favourite football formation and the end of the Second World War.
These facts may not be easy to remember – but not so hard as digits in raw form.
Look for meaning in everything – especially if you can refer it back to yourself.
19. Eat like our European neighbours
A Mediterranean diet – low in red meat and dairy and high in omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish and nuts – can help preserve memory and reduce dementia risk, say US researchers.
The study, in the journal Neurology, studied the diets of 17,478 people with an average age of 64.
Those who followed the Med diet were 19% less likely to develop problems with memory.
20. Watch your food intake
Eating too much can double the risk of memory problems in old age, according to US research.
Studies found a high-calorie intake can substantially increase the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, characterised by memory loss, which can precede dementia.
21. Learn another language
Learning a foreign language can boost the brain – even as an adult.
Research carried out at Edinburgh University found verbal fluency and intelligence improved in 262 people who took on another tongue.
Other studies have even hinted that being bilingual can delay the onset of dementia by several years.
The effects were present in those who learned their second language early, as well as later in life.
Dr Thomas Bak, who conducted the research, said: “Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life.
“Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain.”
22. Drink red wine, but only a little
Half a glass of wine a day improves cognitive ability and memory, say researchers from Oxford University.
“It’s thought the micronutrients called flavonoids, particularly in red wine, improve brain function,” explains Dr Iddon.
23. Look at nature
A US study found people who walked around an arboretum did 20% better on a memory test than those who walked around streets. Just looking at pictures of nature can have a beneficial effect.
24. Tuck into chocolate
Eating chocolate can improve your memory, said Oxford University scientists, who tested 2,000 volunteers.
A separate study at Northumbria University found people given large amounts of flavonols, a compound found in chocolate, found mental arithmetic much easier.
25. Get enough sleep
A good sleep triggers changes in the brain that help to improve memory. The findings, by experts at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in the US, came from MRI scans on volunteers’ brains to see which parts are activated after a good night’s rest.
Sleep helps new memories to ‘stick’ in the brain – a process scientists call memory consolidation.
This happens when connections between brain cells are strengthened by proper rest.
Researchers said: “When you are asleep, it seems as if you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions.
“When you wake, memory tasks can be performed more quickly.”
26. Visualise what you need to do
If you’re in the kitchen, and remember you need to close the bedroom window, think of the curtains flapping.
Once you have paused to form the vivid association between the room and the reason you are going there, go straight there.
This avoids the ‘Now, what did I come in here for?’ scenario!
27. Use it or lose it
Developing an interest or hobby and staying involved in activities that stimulate the mind and body can help with memory loss, says Dr Iddon.
“Pursue a hobby, join a book club or do an evening class. It will stop your brain atrophying.”
28. Get salsa dancing
“Music lovers perform better in cognitive tests while research has shown the beneficial effects of music on those with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains memory expert Dr Chris Moulin.
Music with strong rhythms and patterns – like reggae and salsa – are best for memory and problem-solving. The more complex the dance, the more the brain will be.
29. Go abroad
Travel is supposed to broaden the mind.
But according to psychologists at Northwestern University in the US, it can also make it work better.
They gave a series of tests, designed to check the brain’s capacity for creative thinking, to a group of students who had lived abroad and another group who had not.
The results showed those who had spent time studying overseas performed much better, possibly because moving to a strange country involves a major psychological transformation that helps to expand the mind.
But psychologists stress travel only bolsters the brain if the person embraces their new foreign culture just as much as their home one.
In memory tests, doodlers performed 29% better than non-doodlers when asked to recall names and places, Plymouth University researchers found.
Experts say doodling doesn’t tax the mind and allows us to concentrate on the task in hand. It stops us daydreaming, too, which is distracting.
31. Paint your walls red or blue
The brain is highly susceptible to its surroundings. And that includes colour.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia tested the brain function of 600 volunteers to see if it differed according to the colours they were exposed to at the time.
They had to perform tasks using words or images on a computer displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds.
Red groups did better on tests involving
short-term memory and attention to detail – like checking spelling or punctuation.
Those exposed to blue scored more highly on tasks requiring imagination
Researcher Juliet Zhu explained: “If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red colour should be used.
“But for a solution to fight obesity or smoking you should be in a blue room.”
32. Say the alphabet
“When you cannot recall a piece of information such as the name of an actor in a film, use the alphabet search method, i.e. going through the alphabet to find the first letter of the word or name you are trying to remember in order to jog your memory – it really works,” says Dr Iddon.