According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 16 million people in the U.S. suffer with cognitive impairment, a condition that causes difficulty with “remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life.” The risk of cognitive impairment increases as we age, but the good news is that a healthy lifestyle can help delay or prevent cognitive decline. Here are five things you can do to help improve your ability to remember:
Boosting your memory could be as easy as stepping up your exercise. A University of British Columbia study conducted on older women with mild cognitive impairment found that aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory. Another study involving older Italian adults found that walking or other moderate exercise reduced the risk of vascular dementia (which affects reasoning, judgment, planning, and memory) by approximately one-fourth, in contrast to their sedentary counterparts. How? Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which is significantly impaired in vascular dementia.
2. Get adequate sleep.
Intuitively, we know that our brains function better when we get a good night’s rest, and scientific studies on both adults and children confirm this. Two groups of adolescents were tested for declarative memory (recall of facts): One group had a full night’s sleep, and the other group had not slept the night before the test. The group that slept all night scored approximately 20 percent higher on declarative memory tests than the sleep-deprived group. Studies have also shown that lack of sleep impairs adults’ ability to focus and to consolidate memories (make them stick). In a study conducted by Israeli scientists, children’s performance on various memory and attention tests was negatively impacted by as little as an hour less sleep than their peers.
3. Drink more water.
Healthy adults scored lower on tests of memory and attention when they were dehydrated, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Another study by the same researchers found that school children who were given water to drink in the afternoon performed better on memory and other classroom tasks.
4. Reduce stress.
People who are constantly under stress develop elevated cortisol levels—and high cortisol levels impair memory. Researchers at the University of Iowa found that elevated cortisol levels lead to the gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls short-term memory. So, if you want to improve and maintain your short-term memory, take some steps to control the stress in your life.
5. Eat a healthy diet.
Numerous studies confirm that children and adults who eat breakfast perform better on tests of learning and memory. But the type of food you eat can also have a powerful impact on your memory. For example, researchers at Harvard University found that women who ate at least one serving of blueberries and two servings of strawberries weekly had slower rates of cognitive decline than those who didn’t. And a study published in the journal Neurology analyzed the diets of 28,000 adults and found that people with the healthiest diets (those containing higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) were less likely to experience cognitive decline. Those consuming the worst diets (with high amounts of red meats and processed foods) were more likely to experience cognitive decline.
The amazing thing is that what’s good for the brain is also good for the body. Exercising, getting adequate rest, staying hydrated, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet will not only boost your memory, but also your total health and well-being.