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Tips for Improving Memory Health

Medically reviewed by Jennifer Davis, Ph.D., ABPP-CN
Written by Jessica Wolpert
Updated on March 12, 2021

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) isn’t just ordinary forgetfulness. Mild cognitive impairment means that you might forget important events, like a meetup with a friend or a task at your job. You might feel depressed or anxious, and everyday decision-making might be harder. Your friends and family might notice these changes in you.

Mild cognitive impairment is different from simple aging, but it’s not the same as dementia and not all cases of MCI lead to dementia. (To learn more, read What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment?) People with MCI, however, are at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

Symptoms of MCI can be extremely disconcerting, but there are steps you can take to support your memory health. These include lifestyle changes and brain training to improve cognitive function.

Lifestyle Changes Can Help Your Memory Health

Several changes to your daily routine can reduce your risk of worsening mild cognitive impairment. “We know that there are lifestyle and behavioral things that are very important,” explained Dr. Jennifer Davis, a clinical neuropsychologist at Brown University in Rhode Island. Dr. Davis specializes in Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.

Early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment improves the effectiveness of these lifestyle changes. It’s important to consult your doctor when you first begin to notice memory or cognitive issues. To learn more, read Mild Cognitive Impairment: The Benefits of Early Diagnosis.

Limit Smoking and Alcohol

Smoking hurts cognition. Quitting smoking can protect your brain cells and slow cognitive decline.

Light to moderate alcohol use may not be harmful for your memory. However, one study found that heavy drinkers — men who drink more than 14 drinks per week and women who drink more than seven drinks per week — were 22 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than nondrinkers.

You may be in the heavy-drinking category without knowing it. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines one drink as:

A 12-ounce can of 5-percent-alcohol beer
A half a glass of wine
One shot of distilled spirits

Sleep Well

Getting a good night’s sleep may help prevent cognitive problems. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night to keep their memory in good shape. The following sleep hygiene tips can improve the amount and quality of your sleep:

Go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning.
Keep your bedroom at a cooler temperature.
Don’t work in bed. Save that space for sleep (and sex).
Remove electronic devices — such as televisions and smartphones — from your bedroom, or stop using them at least 30 minutes before bedtime. The bright lights on these devices can trick your brain into staying awake.
Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. If you’re hungry, stick with a small snack.

Exercise

Physical activity can protect against cognitive decline. “Cardiovascular exercise is so important to maintaining brain health, specifically in the areas of the brain important for memory,” Dr. Davis said.

There are several reasons why exercise benefits the brain. Exercise keeps the heart and blood vessels in shape, and this can improve blood flow in the brain. Researchers also have found that exercise releases proteins that improve brain health. Exercise also helps promote a healthy sleep cycle.

Aerobic exercise — exercise that raises your heart rate — is best for keeping your blood vessels in shape. Adults should get 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise, such as brisk walking, per week. Even a few 10-minute walks around your house can be helpful. Always consult your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen to find a program that is best for your health.

Eat a Balanced Diet

A healthy diet can help protect your overall wellness and support cognitive functions. Green vegetables, nuts, and berries all contain protective compounds. Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies contain omega-3 fatty acids, which also nourish the brain. Omega-3 supplements are available if you don’t like fish.

Limiting processed foods, red meat, full-fat dairy, sugar, salt, and fried foods may improve overall health, including cognitive function. The Mediterranean diet, which includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, can be helpful for brain health. “The Mediterranean diet has received a lot of attention and a lot of support as being a brain-healthy way of eating, because it reduces the inflammation in the brain,” Dr. Davis said.

Always talk with your doctor before taking any new supplements or making dietary changes.

Keep Your Brain Active To Improve Memory Health

Physical activities and diet changes aren’t the only ways to preserve brain function. Keeping your brain sharp — and happy — can improve cognitive abilities. Learning new things and practicing existing skills can train your brain to stay active and capable.

Learn Something New

Take a class to learn new skills. One study of 359 adults ages 59 to 70 who took a year of college classes showed they were more likely to have better cognitive abilities than their peers in the following years.

It’s especially useful to learn one specific skill, such as painting or drawing, a musical instrument, or a new language. Concentrate on this one new activity to get the most out of your brain training, and schedule your practice time. Practice is the most important part of gaining cognitive benefits. It doesn’t matter how much your skill improves. The important part is that you exercise your brain through practice itself.

You don’t need to travel far from home to gain a new skill. With online classes now available, you can learn something new from the comfort of your home. In addition, adding a new level of skill to an existing hobby can have the same cognitive benefits.

Enjoy Puzzles and Games

Popular word and number puzzles, like sudoku and crosswords, are great ways to hone your thinking skills. In a study of 19,078 older adults, those who regularly did crossword puzzles or sudoku had better cognitive performance than those who did not. Scientists think that working on these puzzles engages different parts of the brain, helping connect both short- and long-term memories.

Jigsaw puzzles are also useful as brain training. Just like sudoku and crosswords, jigsaw puzzle practice stimulates brain processes linked to perception and memory.

Socialize

“Being connected to other people is paramount to maintaining your cognitive functioning,” Dr. Davis said. Researchers have found that older people who participated in social programs were less likely to have cognitive decline. These social programs included:

arts and crafts
singing
playing musical instruments
volunteering with preschool-age children

Staying in touch with friends and family is also important. Close friendships with other people might prevent cognitive decline. If you can’t get in touch with loved ones in person, talking on the phone or video chatting with friends and family are great options.

Find Support for Memory Health

You don’t have to feel alone when dealing with mild cognitive impairment. Members of myALZteam are always available to answer questions and offer encouragement when things get rough.

If you or a loved one has mild cognitive impairment, what do you do to improve memory health? Are there activities or games you enjoy? Share tips in the comments below or directly on myALZteam.

Updated on March 12, 2021
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Jennifer Davis, Ph.D., ABPP-CN is a clinical neuropsychologist specializing in Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. Learn more about her here.
Jessica Wolpert earned a B.A. in English from the University of Virginia and an MA in Literature and Medicine from King's College. Learn more about her here.

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