Seven factors that affect memory

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Is your memory getting worse? While the occasional misplaced key or missed appointment isn’t unusual, more persistent loss of memory might need to be examined. There is a myriad of factors that affect our memory, from diet to stress. Here are seven factors you should consider to keep your memory in its optimal state:

Sleep

Not so surprisingly, sleep is essential for your memory to function well. When you’re asleep, your brain is busy repairing and regenerating. Your memory functions are supported during the many stages of sleep, especially during the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM stages. During the REM phase, memory consolidation takes place. This is when short term memories are strengthened and converted to long term memories. All the new information you took in during the day is retained and successfully stored in your memory for later retrieval. During the non-REM stage, the brain is primed and ready to process new information when you wake up. A lack of sleep has also been shown to affect the hippocampus, which is a key area in the brain that makes new memories. Sleep deprivation can also negatively impact the prefrontal cortex resulting in a lack of focus and attention. This will affect the retention of new information, making it difficult to actually remember things. So, for the average adult, seven to nine hours of sleep is key to keeping memory in top shape.

Exercise

Exercise is important for overall health but studies have shown that memory can be significantly impacted by your level of physical activity. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and aids in the development of brain cells. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that are released by physical activity are responsible for this. One study actually found that a sedentary lifestyle can result in the thinning of the Medial Temporal Lobe or MTL. The MTL is an area of the brain that contributes to memory function. The thinning of the MTL leads to cognitive decline and even dementia in the long run. Therefore, it’s important for adults to get about 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to keep their memory functioning healthily. Exercise also reduces stress and promotes sleep, which are factors that affect memory.

Diet

Boosting brain function and memory is all about what you choose to eat. Your diet should contain nutritious foods that aid growth and repair. Foods that are processed, fatty and sugary can be damaging to your brain and memory. In fact, researchers have found a clear link between consumption of trans fat and inflammation in the brain that caused short term memory loss. Therefore, foods such as leafy greens, fatty fish and assorted nuts are a great foundation for your meals. Nutritionists also recommend anti-inflammatory foods like healthy fats, whole grains and legumes. You should also be conscious of your vitamin intake. Iron, Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12 deficiencies can impact your memory.

Alcohol and smoking

If you drink or smoke regularly, forgetfulness may become commonplace. Excessive partaking of both alcohol and smoking has been shown to damage brain cells and halt new brain cell production in the hippocampus. In the long run, even moderate drinking can cause cognitive impairment. Brain tissue can shrink resulting in short term memory loss and brain cell death. There’s even a type of dementia that’s been attributed to alcoholism known as Korsakoff Syndrome. With smoking, chronic exposure to nicotine can impair the hippocampus and affect learning and memory. Other side effects of smoking include lung and heart damage. This can diminish the transportation of oxygen to the brain, further damaging memory.

Stress, work and environment

Living in a messy, disorganised space is bound to aggravate forgetfulness. Even more so when you don’t have any systems in place to organise and allocate your time, tasks and belongings. Clutter has been scientifically proven to make us less productive and more stressed, affecting sleep, focus and memory. It’s crucial to make your environment clutter-free; have a place for every item and always keep it there. It’s also helpful to have a system in place if you want to remember things, whether it be a notebook, calendar or a scheduling app. When carrying out activities, avoid multi-tasking. Experts warn that multi-tasking will not let you remember things as effectively as you can. When your attention and focus are split between many things, your retention is lower. As such, it’s recommended that you block out your time and do one task at a time with reasonable breaks in between.

Having a productive environment and system can help you avoid stress, which is a factor that affects memory. It has been found that prolonged periods of stress in daily life can increase cortisol levels. An increase in this hormone can damage synapses in the brain, making memory retrieval difficult. Research has shown that meditation can be helpful in battling stress and boosting memory. Regular meditation has been shown to improve memory and decision making by increasing grey matter in the brain.

Brain stimulation

Your brain is also a muscle and when it isn’t used enough it becomes weak. Boosting brain function and memory requires stimulating activities. As such, passive activities like watching TV will not be enough to energise your mind. This is where you can pick an activity you’d enjoy while you enhance your memory skills. Learning a new language, doing puzzles, reading and even playing online brain teaser games are a great way to stimulate your mind. You can even engage in more creative activities like dancing, painting or writing poetry to help brain development. Studies have shown that creative thinking can solidify neural pathway in the hippocampus, improving memory and spatial abilities.

Illnesses

A poor memory can sometimes indicate physical or mental health issues. For example, a lack of thyroid hormones, known as hypothyroidism, can cause loss of memory. Depression, which is a common mental illness, has signs such as lack of focus, disorganisation and forgetfulness. Short term memory loss is a commonplace symptom in many patients. If you suspect that your memory problems may be indicative of a health issue, consult with a doctor to see what your diagnosis and treatment options are.

By Thiyashi Koththigoda