Memory: Natural Remedies
Getting a bit forgetful is a natural part of ageing, and most people find their memory isn’t as good as it used to be, even if they’re not that old. There are some very good explanations why your memory may not be as sharp as you’d like it to be from time to time. According to the NHS, lots of things can affect your memory, including stress, tiredness or certain illnesses and medicines (i).
Indeed, most people can be forgetful occasionally. For instance, how often have you forgotten someone’s name the minute after you’ve been introduced to them? Or walked into a room and forgotten why? Perhaps you find it difficult to keep important facts and numbers in your head, and maybe you have to write down dates, meetings and appointments that are coming up to avoid missing them. Well, who doesn’t? After all, our increasingly busy lifestyles make it almost impossible to remember everything these days.
But having a good memory is important, and some researchers believe those with good working memories have better jobs, better relationships and are more optimistic and confident than others with poor working memories (working memory means the ability to hold information in your head while doing complex mental tasks) (ii).
When does poor memory become dementia?
If, however, you’re aged 65 and older and you find yourself becoming increasingly forgetful, it could be a sign that you’re experiencing the early signs of dementia.
Currently there are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, and these numbers are thought to be set to rise to 1.6 million by 2040 (iii) and two million by 2051 (iv) (though this increase could well be linked to the fact that more people are living longer). Meanwhile of the 850,000 people estimated to be living with dementia in the UK, 62 per cent are women and 38 per cent men (iv).
There are many different types of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s. And one of the main symptoms is memory loss (others include difficulties with thinking, problem solving, understanding or language).
While there are treatments that may temporarily slow down the progression of dementia symptoms in some people, there’s no cure. Similarly, there may be no way to prevent Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia. But the good news is many experts believe there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia (or at least delaying the onset).
Eat for a better memory
Most people realise a nutritious diet can keep their bodies healthy. So why not their minds – and memories – too? Here are some of the foods that may keep your brain, as well as the rest of you, in good working order:
Many experts believe eating oily fish – such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines and pilchards – may help cut the risk of Alzheimer's. Perhaps that’s because oily fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that are widely considered essential for a healthy brain. Official guidelines recommend eating at least two portions of fish each week, one of which should be oily (v).
Drinking tea – either ordinary black tea or green – may help prevent Alzheimer’s because it reduces the production of a brain chemical thought to be involved in the development of the disease (vi). Drinking moderate amounts of red wine may also help to protect the brain against dementia (vii). But drinking heavily or binge drinking may make you more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia compared with someone who drinks in moderation (viii). Keep your memory safe, and aim for no more than 14 units of alcohol a week spread over at least three days.
A spice widely used in Indian food called turmeric has also been linked with the slowing down of the onset of dementia, thanks to an active substance it contains called curcumin (ix).
As well as providing protein, nuts also contain brain-boosting omega fatty acids (walnuts, pecans or pistachios have the highest levels). Flaxseeds and chia seeds are also high in omega-3s. Nuts and seeds also contain vitamin E, which experts believe could help keep your brain healthy as you get older (x). Other foods containing vitamin E include dark green leafy vegetables, avocados and sunflower seeds.
Whole grain cereals
Whole grains are a key part of the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment (xi). But to be honest, eating just about anything in the morning could improve your memory and attention throughout the day compared with skipping breakfast altogether.
Egg yolks are thought to be linked to mental performance because they contain a substance called lutein. This is found naturally in the brain, and it’s thought that the higher your level of lutein, the better you can process information.
Colourful fruit such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries and blackcurrants are good healthy all-rounders, thanks largely to the fact they contain substances called antioxidants. Plus they may be good for your brain. Eating blueberries, for instance, has been linked with improved memory in older people (xii).
This vegetable contains substances called nitrates that are thought to help to dilate your blood vessels. And dilated blood vessels may result in increased blood flow to your brain, helping your memory to stay sharper for longer.
Meanwhile, try cutting down on food that’s high in saturated fat (mostly found in animal products), as too much saturated fat may increase your cholesterol levels. Why? Because having high cholesterol is linked to some types of dementia (xiii). Eating less salt may help too, as salt increases blood pressure (according to Blood Pressure UK, high blood pressure is a risk factor for a type of dementia called vascular dementia (xiv)).
Have fun with memory games
Computer-based brain training games may be popular with people who want to keep their memory in good working order. But there are other fun ways of keeping your mind sharp that don’t involve staring at a computer, tablet or smartphone screen – and they don’t always have to involve doing crosswords or Sudoku puzzles either.
The key to using games to boost your memory is to have fun. Here are some of the things you could do to keep your mind working at full capacity:
When you think about it, playing cards is the perfect brain game because you have to work out your strategy and try to anticipate what your opponent is going to do before they do it. But you don’t have to play with another player to get a quick memory workout with cards. Here’s a game you can play by yourself called concentration that may improve your ability to remember things:
Take an ordinary pack of playing cards, and remove two of the four suits (hearts, clubs, diamonds or spades) so that you’re left with two sets of matching pairs. When you become skilled at concentration, you can use all four suits to make it even more difficult.
Shuffle the remaining two suits, then lay them on a table, face down.
Turn one card over, then another.
Memorise both cards and where they are, then flip them over again.
Keep going until you find a pair. When you do, remove the two cards and try to find more pairs.
The game is over when you have no more cards in front of you.
If you enjoy going to the pub every now and then, try joining in with the pub quiz, as quizzes can be good for helping you to improve your recall. Alternatively, buy a trivia quiz book and organise your own quiz night with some friends or family members.
Classic games such as chess and Scrabble can help sharpen your memory skills while giving your brain a general work-out. Some experts believe non-digital games such as chess may also reduce the decline of cognitive function in older people (xv).
Making up stories can really get your brain working and help you to think more creatively. Try playing a storytelling game with your family or a group of friends. Put some objects on a table, then have one person pick up one of the objects and weave the beginning of a story around it. When they come to a natural pause, someone else picks up another object and continues the story, using the object within the story. When the last person picks up the last object, they should finish the story (again, using the object in the story ending).
Jigsaws are the perfect form of memory-boosting entertainment as they’re thought to help boost logical thought processes and problem-solving skills, as well as short-term memory. If you’re already really good at jigsaws, try doing them without looking at the photograph on the box to make things more difficult.
More memory tips and tricks
In addition to eating a memory-healthy diet and playing mind-boosting games, there are other things you can do to keep your brain ticking over nicely, including the following: Learn a new skill: Learning anything new can help improve your memory because it makes fresh connections in your brain. Try learning to play a musical instrument, for example, or learn to speak a different language. In fact, any kind of learning can be an effective brain booster.
Learn a new skill
Learning anything new can help improve your memory because it makes fresh connections in your brain. Try learning to play a musical instrument, for example, or learn to speak a different language. In fact, any kind of learning can be an effective brain booster.
This can work on a much smaller scale too, especially as your brain benefits from learning new things regularly. Aim to learn something new every day, even if it doesn’t seem very important or clever.
A mnemonic is a tool that helps you to remember things. For instance, ‘every good boy deserves favour’ is a mnemonic for the notes on the lines of the musical treble stave (EGBDF), and ‘i before e except after c’ is a mnemonic that can help with spelling. So why not make up your own when you need to remember something? You can use rhymes to help remember names, or try a visual mnemonic if someone has a suitable name (visualise Michael Taylor as wearing a sharp suit, or imagine Diane Hook as having a hook for a hand, for example).
Learn to dance
Some scientists believe dancing can help keep your memory sharp because of all those steps you have to memorise (xvi). Plus the exercise – or, in fact, any exercise – can help your heart to pump more effectively, which boosts the blood supply to your brain. Walking may also help to stop your brain shrinking, which may help prevent age-related mental decline (aim for at least a mile a day).
Getting a good night’s sleep can boost your memory because when you sleep, connections between nerve cells in your brain are strengthened, and that may help you learn and remember things more easily.
Get out and about
Socialising is good for your mental, physical and emotional health, especially when your older, as people who have little social contact may be more likely to develop dementia than those who socialise on a regular basis (xvii). Ensuring that you keep a happy, healthy mind, free from worries caused by stress or depression, is just as important. Just having a chat with somebody could give your memory a boost too – so next time you’re tempted to send a friend or family member an email or a text, try giving them a ring instead.
Discover more information on how to support your body naturally as you age.
Natural remedies for a better memory
A healthy diet may be one of the best ways to boost your brain, but there are several nutritional supplements that may improve your memory too, including the following:
This herb has been used for memory enhancement in the East for thousands of years. Widely thought to improve circulation of blood to the brain, it may help improve memory, mood, concentration and energy. Indeed, studies suggest that ginkgo is effective for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory and mental function decline (xviii). There’s also evidence that ginkgo may enhance memory in those who don’t have dementia (xix).
A member of a class of compounds made in the body called phospholipids, phosphatidyl serine (PS) can also be made from plant sources, such as soya beans. Experts believe PS is important for memory and brain health, with studies suggesting it may be useful for people with age-related memory loss (xx). Another study suggests combining PS with ginkgo may make it more effective (xxi).
Also widely made from soya beans, lecithin contains a substance many experts believe is beneficial for health called phosphatidyl choline. It contains another active substance called inositol, which along with phosphatidyl choline is thought to be important for cell communications, particularly in the brain. There is also some evidence that another substance derived from lecithin called phosphatidic acid may have a positive influence on memory and mood in older people when combined with phosphatidyl serine (xxii).
Fish oils are widely linked with healthy brain development in children. There is also some evidence that the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish may help slow mental decline in people with very mild Alzheimer’s disease (xxiii). Studies elsewhere suggest that omega-3 fatty acids could slow the development of Alzheimer’s by postponing the age-related mental decline that precedes it (xxiv), and that tomega-3 supplements may be beneficial in the very early stages of the disease (xxv). Meanwhile French researchers have discovered that eating a diet rich in fish, fruits, vegetables and omega-3-rich oils may significantly reduce your chances of developing memory problems (xxvi).
Meanwhile, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish.
Widely used as a culinary herb in Indian cuisine, turmeric contains an active ingredient called curcumin that’s thought to have anti-inflammatory properties that may have benefits for brain health. Results of a small-scale study also suggest curcumin may improve short-term memory in people aged 60 or older who have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes (xxvii).
Also a common culinary herb, sage has been traditionally used as a gargle for a sore throat and for coughs. These days, it is widely used in Germany as a digestive remedy. But it has also been shown to improve memory in young and in older adults (xxviii), with one study suggesting it may be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease (xxix).
Many of the B vitamins are needed for the manufacture of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). But there may well be other benefits of B vitamins for the brain, particularly vitamin B12, which supports nerve and brain health. One study even suggests taking B vitamins may prevent shrinkage in the area of the brain, called the medical temporal lobe, which is a key development in Alzheimer’s disease (xxx). Another paper suggests that low vitamin B12 levels may be associated with poorer memory performance in people with mild cognitive impairment, though the researchers didn’t assess whether or not taking B12 supplements may improve memory (xxxi).
Ensuring that you keep your memory ticking over is a great way to support your body as you age. For even more helpful articles on a range of common conditions just like this, why not visit our health library?
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Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.