Most of us notice that our memory tends to slow down as we get older.
This isn’t because our brain cells die," says Dr David Weeks, consultant clinical neuropsychologist.
“We do lose brain cells at a rate of up to10,000 a day after the age of about 40, but the majority of memory problems associated with age are caused by poor concentration or motivation, or by anxiety and stress.”
Added to that we don’t tend to work our brains – and our memories - as hard as we used to as we age. As we grow older our circulation tends to slow down, which means there’s less oxygen reaching our brain cells. We also don’t stretch our brains as much as we used to.
The memory is like any other muscle. It needs to be used to function at optimum levels. There’s a lot of truth in the old adage: Use it or lose it.
So how can you get your memory back on track?
1. Exercise your body to boost your memory
Get your body moving and your brain will benefit. Studies have found that exercise plays an important part in improving your memory. This is because exercise triggers changes in our brains, including growing new blood vessels, and improving the health of our brain cells. So these changes mean that our thinking abilities and our memory are protected.
The type of exercise you do is important. To gain those brain and memory benefits you need to do aerobic exercise regularly.
Scientists at the University of British Columbia carried out a study among older women, and found that brisk walking, jogging, running, playing tennis - any physical activity that increases your heart rate and makes you hot and sweaty – appeared to increase the part of the brain (the hippocampus), that is responsible for verbal memory and learning.
If you don’t already exercise, start slowly, with gentle, short, walks, and build up from there.
Learn more about the best types of exercise with our guide
2. Eat well to protect your memory
There’s no need to go on an extreme diet, just make some healthy changes to your diet and you should feel the benefit in all sorts of ways, including your memory. Have plenty of vegetables, both green and leafy, and other types, and fruit. Having a range of both will supply you with a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients.
Other foods to include are nuts, berries, blueberries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine (but not too much). A recent study found that the MIND diet which includes all these foods may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53% in people who really keep to the diet. Those who followed the diet moderately well lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s by about 35%.
Of all the foods included in the diet, blueberries were found to be one of the most potent foods when it comes to protecting the brain. And past studies have shown that strawberries are good for our cognitive function.
You can find out more about the MIND diet with our article
Eat smart: our guide to brain-boosting foods
3. Drink enough fluid to keep your memory sharp
If you don’t keep your fluid levels up, you can become dehydrated. As well as causing headaches, and in the long-term possibly causing more serious problems, dehydration can affect your memory.
Water is always a good choice of drink – try to have a full glass with every meal, and in between meals too. Tea, squash, and other drinks also help to rehydrate you.
A recent study carried out at Johns Hopkins University in the USA, has found out that as well as perking us up, and keeping us awake, coffee has other benefits. It plays a part in keeping us hydrated, and coffee also helps improve our memories up to 24 hours after we’ve drunk it. Don’t go overboard with your coffee consumption though. And if you have a long-term health condition or are on medication, check with your doctor whether it’s OK to start drinking coffee, or to have an extra cup a day.
Find out how much water you need to drink and some strategies for staying hydrated
4. Give your brain a workout to boost your memory
This is where the ‘use it or lose it’ phrase comes in. An important study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (in 2003) found that carrying out cognitive activities – such as reading, playing board games and playing a musical instrument – are associated with a lower risk of dementia. So people who set their brains to work regularly – playing cards, chess, bingo and draughts, may also help – are less likely to have memory problems.
And don’t just stick with things you know – learn something new, and give your brain something challenging to try.
Although it may seem more like exercise for the body than the brain, dancing (particularly ballroom dancing) three or four times a week can help hold back dementia. The combination of exercising and challenging your brain and your body can give you up to 75% reduced risk of developing dementia. Can’t dance? It’s never too late to learn.
Related: Brain games to keep you sharp
5. Why your memory needs sleep too
Having enough shut-eye is important, both for your physical and mental health. If you don’t have enough sleep, in the short term it can affect the decisions you make and how well you learn and remember information.
Taking naps, even for as little as 45 minutes, can make a difference to your memory too. A study recently carried out by researchers at Saarland University in Germany found that participants who napped for up to an hour improved their ability to recall pairs of words by about five times more than those who stayed awake.
It’s all related to sleep spindles – sudden periods of activity in the part of the brain’s hippocampus that is thought to be important in firming up memories.
Related: 10 healthy reasons for getting a good night's sleep