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Improving Memory: Lifestyle Changes

Improving Memory: Lifestyle Changes, Diet and Memory

When it comes to brain food, the best bet is a properly balanced diet.

Evidence continues to build that many of the same poor lifestyle choices that lead to major health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer, are similarly detrimental to the brain. Our dietary decisions are no exception. The quality of the diet appears to affect brain health and function, including memory.

So what makes for good brain food? Despite the claims on various snacks, beverages, and other food products, there is no miracle brain food that can boost your thinking and memory skills (just as there is no single food or food ingredient that can ensure heart health or protection from cancer). The best diet for your brain is, basically, the kind that's also healthy for the rest of your body -- a well-balanced diet, filled with whole grains, a wide variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, and moderate amounts of protein, that supplies just enough calories to fuel your daily activities. That diet should also include some fat, but not just any kind of fat: A diet that is healthy for cell membranes, including the cells in the brain, appears to be one that includes monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids rather than saturated fats.


Some research indicates that diets that are rich in olive oil, which is made up primarily of monounsaturated fat, may help prevent age-related memory loss in healthy older people. Italian researchers found that senior citizens who consume diets that are high in monounsaturated fats are less likely to experience age-related thinking and memory decline. The more of this type of fat the subjects consumed, the better they were protected against age-related cognitive decline. Fortunately, monounsaturated fat is also the preferred type of fat to include in your diet to protect the health of your heart and blood vessels, which can help ensure a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to hard-working brain cells.

In addition, polyunsaturated fats that are high in omega-3 fatty acids appear to be beneficial to your health, including the health of the brain, in a variety of ways. Research suggests that these fatty acids, found primarily in cold-water fish (anchovies, herring, mackeral, salmon, sardines, tuna, and whitefish, for example) may lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. That's good news for people who want to protect their memory, as well, since the brain relies on a smooth, uninterrupted flow of blood to function well. Some evidence also suggests that these fatty acids may counter the effects of free radicals that can damage cells throughout the body. And recent animal studies showed that adding fish oil to the diet of rats increased the level of BDNF in their brains, so the oils may help protect brain cells from damage and may even promote brain cell growth.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should pack your diet with fat, even the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated kind, because fat is a calorie-dense nutrient. Consuming a lot of extra calories without increasing your physical activity level can lead to obesity, which in turn increases your risk of heart and blood-vessel disease. So talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about the appropriate amount of fat to include in your diet.

A brain-healthy, memory-wise diet should also provide sufficient amounts of the vitamins and minerals the body needs for health. Of course, loading up on any particular vitamin or mineral will not turn you into a memory machine, but there is some evidence that taking in less than optimum levels of certain vitamins can keep your mind and memory from performing at their best. That's one of the reasons it's so important to consume a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (they also contain myriad phytochemicals and other substances that can help protect the body from damage, disease, and some of the effects of aging). And, if you find yourself struggling to consistently achieve such variety in your diet, you may want to consider taking a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement that supplies the recommended allowances (but not mega amounts, because more is not necessarily better and can actually be detrimental) of these nutrients.

B Vitamins

Nutritionists have known for some time that severe deficiencies of the B vitamins can lead to memory problems. And some initial research suggests that increasing intake of certain B vitamins can help enhance memory abilities. There is some evidence, for example, that niacin (B3) may be a memory enhancer; in one study, subjects improved their memory between 10 percent and 40 percent simply by taking 140 mg of niacin a day.

B12 is also important for memory and other cognitive functions. Unfortunately, with age, some people lose the ability to absorb enough B12. Some 20 percent of people over age 60 can't absorb enough B12; that percentage jumps to 40 percent by age 80. For this reason, older individuals might want to choose cereals that are fortified with B12 or consult a doctor about taking a B12 supplement. Low blood levels of vitamin B12 may also occur in those vegetarians who don't eat eggs, fish, or dairy products and therefore don't get sufficient vitamin B12. Some diseases (such as Crohn's disease), as well as surgical removal of the intestine, can also result in poor B12 absorption. In a small number of cases, chronic B12 deficiency requires injections of the vitamin on a monthly basis.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina discovered that if pregnant rats don't get enough of the B vitamin choline, the learning and memory centers in the brains of their developing offspring may be permanently affected. Whether the same holds true in pregnant women who get too little choline is not yet known. (If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, be sure to discuss vitamin and mineral supplementation before conception or as early in your pregnancy as possible. But don't take any over-the-counter or prescription supplement or drug without clearing it with your doctor first.)

The B vitamin folic acid has been closely linked to dementia in the elderly. And among healthy people, low levels of folic acid have been linked to lower scores on memory tests. This vitamin is found in a wide variety of foods, especially liver and raw vegetables, legumes, nuts, avocados, cereals, and spinach and other leafy greens. Normally, a well-balanced diet provides enough folic acid, but low-dose supplements (200 to 500 micrograms) seem safe. Taking higher doses of folic acid requires medical supervision.

Vitamins C & E

Vitamins C & E

Getting enough of vitamins C and E may also help perk up a flagging memory and keep it sharp. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants and as such may help to ease some of the stress put on brain cells by free radicals, which are released during normal chemical reactions in the body. Research clearly shows that free radicals damage the brain during normal aging as well as in Alzheimer's disease. Therefore, it has been speculated that antioxidants, which neutralize damaging free radicals, might also be able to improve memory, even in those without dementia. Because these vitamins are relatively safe and are essential to proper functioning of a wide variety of processes in the body, ensuring adequate intake of them-and even getting more than the recommended daily allowance-is not likely to be harmful. But it's still best to consult your doctor before taking higher-than-recommended doses.


Magnesium, sometimes described as an "antistress" mineral, has many essential metabolic functions in the body, and it may be important in learning and memory. Magnesium is also vital for the production and transfer of nerve impulses, in muscle contraction and relaxation, in protein synthesis, and in many biochemical reactions. Several studies have noted that low levels of magnesium are one of the most common dietary deficiencies in the world, especially among older people. There is some speculation that magnesium deficiency may be linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease, as well.

The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for magnesium is about 350 mg for men and 300 mg for women, increasing to about 450 mg during pregnancy and lactation. The minimum is also expressed as about 6 mg per 2.2 pounds of body weight. Many authorities feel that the RDA should be doubled, to about 600 to 700 mg daily. An average diet usually supplies about 120 mg of magnesium per 1,000 calories (or an estimated daily intake of about 250 mg). This does not produce adequate tissue levels of magnesium for most people.

Therefore, you may want to increase your dietary intake of magnesium to ensure that you are getting adequate levels for optimum functioning. Dietary sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, soybeans, milk, and seafood.

On the next page, learn about the effects of alcohol and tobacco on memory.

To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see: