10 brain exercises to improve your memory
Understanding memory loss is the first step to improving it
You’ve probably noticed the incredible array of so-called ‘brain training’ apps and programs available online these days. But can mental exercises really help improve memory?
If you’re wondering how to improve memory, Dr Kate Gregorevic – geriatrician, internal medicine physician and author of Staying Alive: The Science of Living Healthier, Happier and Longer – says many of these targeted memory exercises may not be all they’re cracked up to be.
But there are definitely other things you can do to keep your mind sharp – and the great news is, they’re easy to do!
Kate explains, “I encourage people to look after their brain health by seeking opportunities for challenge in everyday life as well as looking after their cardiovascular and mental health.”
How do brain exercises improve memory?
Some memory loss is normal as we age, with some people experiencing a decline in what’s known as working memory.
“Working memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension,” Kate explains. “This decline is because, with age, it becomes harder to filter out irrelevant information to focus on the important new information.”
As we get older, it’s normal to have some trouble learning new things or needing more time to remember them – but we certainly don’t lose the ability to learn altogether, says Kate.
“Our brains retain their plasticity and ability to respond to challenge. There are so many amazing examples of people – like Sir David Attenborough and Margaret Atwood, who are clearly at the height of their cognitive powers – to show that living more years does not automatically mean a decline in brain function.”
Interestingly, other types of memory can actually increase with age – “particularly the number of things we have learnt, like vocabulary”, Kate says.
“Even people with dementia, who have trouble retaining new information, can often tell me amazing stories about their childhood.”
If you’re interested in how to sharpen your mind, read on.
What are brain exercises?
Memory loss may improve by 30-50 per cent when we perform regular mental exercises. Luckily, these brain-training activities already show up in everyday life.
“Just like our muscles get bigger with exercise, our brain power also gets better with exercising our learning power,” says Kate. “There are opportunities for learning all around us. Being in a cognitively challenging job, having a higher level of education, social engagement and exercise are all associated with better brain function.”
What are some of the best ways to improve memory?
“I don’t recommend any specific brain-training programs because there just isn’t convincing evidence that they prevent dementia,” Kate says. However, there are a number of general exercises that research shows can improve your memory.
1. Physical activity
Physical activity is one of the best forms of brain exercise, Kate says.
“When we exercise, we get an increase in blood flow to our brain, as well as changes in neurotransmitters that help promote learning,” she explains.
“Exercise is also good for our blood pressure, which is important because mid-life hypertension is an important risk for later-life dementia.”
For even bigger benefits, choose an activity that also challenges you to think or learn a whole new skillset – such as dancing or tai chi – and aim for 30 minutes each day.
Interacting with people is another way to work our brains, and an enjoyable one at that!
“Socialising is actually a form of cognitive challenge,” says Kate. “Following a conversation requires attention, especially if multiple people are speaking at once. There are new ideas, which leads to the need to take on information and formulate a response.”
3. Playing games
Playing games that challenge you mentally and force you to think, such as chess, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit and card games, gives you even more cognitive bang for your buck when spending time with friends.
Meditation is a great tool for reducing stress and is linked with better attention and working memory
4. Reducing stress levels
Reducing stress is another key factor in boosting memory, as an excess of stress hormones such as cortisol can be harmful to neurons (which transmit information in the brain). Meditation is a great tool for this, and is linked with better attention and working memory, says Kate.
5. Reducing risk factors
Brain health is also linked to body health – so not smoking, getting checked for blood pressure and diabetes, getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious diet are all vital for maintaining our brain health, adds Kate.
6. Looking after your mental health
“Depression and anxiety can have a negative impact on cognition, so it is really important to get treatment to manage these conditions, to optimise brain function,” Kate says.
Read more and read often – from books to magazines and newspapers.
8. Learning something new
Learn a new language or enrol in a short course or workshop that interests you. Take up dance classes or another new hobby.
9. Working with your hands
Learn a new manual skill, such as sewing or woodworking, which can be good for improving spatial awareness.
10. Becoming a quiz master
Doing crosswords and word puzzles. Play along with general knowledge game shows on TV.
Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.
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Dr Kate Gregorevic
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician and internal medicine physician. She loves working with older adults and soaking up wisdom and life lessons from people who have lived many years. She has also published multiple studies and has written her first book, Staying Alive: the science of living happier, healthier and longer. Kate lives in Melbourne and loves having at-home dance parties with her three children.