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. Give your brain a workout to improve 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.
Brain training in the form of learning a new language, playing Sudoku or even video games, is most likely to be effective on people who have repetitive and un-stimulating day jobs.
The best activities challenge you in ways you’re not accustomed to, encouraging your brain to create new neural pathways. If you work with numbers, sign up to learn French; if you’re a salesperson, try something that requires visual-spatial skills such as carpentry; or if you work in computer technology, take an art class.
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
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
One study among many, undertaken at the University of Siena in Italy, found that people who took omega-3 supplements had improved mood and cognition. The researchers concluded that a diet rich in fish oil is associated with better attention, and improved complex cortical processing. In layman’s terms, that means eating fish oil helps keep the cogs in your mind functioning smoothly.
The official recommendation is to eat two or three servings of cold-water fish, such as herring, fresh tuna, salmon, or mackerel per week, and if you do then you’ll already be experiencing the benefits of omega-3s.
Other foods rich in the oil are pumpkin seeds, walnuts and flaxseed, though the omega-3s from fish are easier for the body to use than those from these vegetarian sources. It's a good idea to get as much omega-3 from your diet as you can, but in order to consume enough to get the full heart and brain benefits, you'll probably need to take a supplement.
Not all omega-3 supplements are created equal. There are several different kinds of omega-3, not all of which have identical benefits. EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid, and DHA – docosahexaenoic acid, are the two most important forms and it’s these you should look for on the label.
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.
Coffee seems to be a popular subject to study. The results from a number of studies carried out over the years have found that as well as perking us up, and keeping us awake coffee has other benefits. According to various studies, drinking coffee plays a part in keeping us hydrated, is part of a healthy diet, and may contribute to us living for longer. 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 okay to start drinking coffee, or to have an extra cup a day.
4. 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 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
5. 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.
Meanwhile, resistance training – such as using weights in the gym, some styles of yoga or even carrying heavy groceries – has a positive effect on the brain's 'executive functions', such as memory and organisation skills.
If you don’t already exercise, start slowly, with gentle, short, walks, and build up from there. Tai chi can also be a good, gentle exercise to do from home.
Learn more about the best types of exercise with our guide
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