3 ways to boost your memory, according to brain experts

Worries about dementia often rank high in polls of Canadians’ health concerns, but a neurologist says there are ways to keep our cherished memories strong.

Dr. Sandra Black, a cognitive neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, says with normal aging, short-term memory dulls and the brain’s processing speed slows with each decade after 50.

To help counter those declines, Black looks for ways to boost memory that are supported by scientific evidence.

1. Get moving

Exercise, from walking to running, is one memory booster that’s backed by more and more research. Canada’s guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week for adults.

“When you are aerobically exercising, when you’re on that run, your muscles are actually releasing a signal. It’s called irisin,” Black said. “You’re actually stimulating the part of the brain that stores information and learns things.”

The recent discovery of the irisin protein builds on other research linking muscle and brain function, Black told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of  CBC’s podcast The Dose

Dr. Sandra Black encourages walking and more heart-pumping physical activity as beneficial for mental abilities like memory and language. (Submitted by Sandra Black)

When she sees patients, Black said she talks about why lifestyle choices such as exercise are important. Since a healthy brain needs a lot of oxygen, whatever protects our blood vessels, heart and circulation, also fuels the brain.

Black and other experts encourage walking, or more heart-pumping physical activities, for their benefits to cognitive abilities like memory and language.

2. Eat the good stuff

Black suggests eating a Mediterranean diet rich in green, leafy vegetables like broccoli, kale and cabbage, as well as berries, whole grains, walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

The advice is based on studies that followed people in different populations that seemed to have a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s and vascular disease, compared with populations following other eating patterns.

The Dose20:41What can I do to boost my memory?

What else works? In one published clinical trial, researchers showed that medium-chain triglycerides found primarily in coconut oil may help delay worsening Alzheimer’s disease compared with taking a sugar pill, the gold standard regulators use to approve medications.

Your best bet is to consume healthy nutrients through a varied diet of mostly whole foods, not supplements that promise those benefits in pill form.

Black said patients who can take supplements aren’t told to stop if they can afford them, but her team doesn’t endorse them, either. That’s because the scientific evidence in favour of many supplements fails to take the placebo effect into account, or the trials weren’t long enough to measure an effect, she said.

WATCH | More praise for Mediterranean diet:

More praise for Mediterranean diet

3. Enjoy word games with others

Penny Pexman, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary who studies cognitive neuroscience, suggests activities that combine exercise, socializing and cognition.

Pexman’s lab focuses on how we process language, including a study titled This is your brain on Scrabble

Scrabble players who enjoy the game and its social benefits are motivated to score higher, Pexman said. 

Aside from the social benefits of getting together to play, Pexman’s research suggests competitive Scrabble players also recognize words faster than those who didn’t routinely put down tiles, particularly for words presented vertically.

“My best recommendation, based on what I know, is to engage in things like dance or pickleball,” Pexman said. “You’ve got things that involve some spatial skills, they’re taxing your working memory and they’re also giving you social …benefits, too.” 

Pickleball is a workout for both spatial skills and working memory that also offers social benefits. (Brian Blanco/The Associated Press Images for Humana)

Why it’s not all downhill

Pexman also studies age-related changes, and notes that many, but not all, cognitive abilities start to decline by about age 30. 

“There are things, though, that you can continue to grow,” Pexman said. “Your vocabulary grows throughout your life.”

Black also points to the wisdom and knowledge we gain with age.

“You have a little more trouble with the word finding, but you know a lot more about the world,” Black said. 

A 25-year-old may be faster, but a wise elder in many societies has a richer understanding of culture from their life experience, she added.

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