It’s normal as we get older to lose some of our cognitive function, which can make us more prone to forgetfulness.

Neuraxpharm provides natural alternatives for the cognitive function and once your healthcare professional has determined your specific needs, they can advise the product that best adapts to your needs and condition.

Find out more about how the brain stores and retrieves information and how to aid memory.

What is memory and cognitive function?

Memory is the process of taking in information from the world around us, processing and storing it, and later recalling what we have retained. There are three major processes involved in memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Fleeting moments when we need to remember something such as a telephone number that we’re just about to dial are stored in the short-term memory for a very small period of time, while our life experiences are more likely to be stored in our long-term memory.

Cognitive functions such as perception, attention, memory, learning, thinking, decision making and language are the mental skills we need to carry out any task, from the relatively simple to the most complex. These include awareness, information handling, memory, and reasoning. From brushing your teeth to using the internet or reading a book, all of these tasks are achieved using your cognitive abilities.

What is good memory and cognitive function?

Having good memory and cognitive function means being able to think, learn and remember clearly.

To make sense of the world around us, our memory takes in information from our five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing – to capture in detail moments to recall in the short or longer term.

This detailed insight is stored and can be recalled with or without the help of prompts from your senses. For example, if you have discovered that you have an allergy to a certain type of food, you wouldn’t need to try eating it again for you to remember. However, prompts such as a photograph, a fragrance, or a piece of music can be particularly powerful in recalling cherished memories.

Causes of poor memory and cognitive function

A certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of ageing. While there is little age-related decline in mental functions such as vocabulary, general knowledge and some numerical skills, we can find that other cognitive capabilities start to decline from middle age onwards. These include aspects of memory, processing speed, reasoning, and multitasking. It’s quite normal for everyone to forget things from time to time. For example, you might find it sometimes takes a little while for you to recall a particular word you want to use when having a conversation. But we tend to find we’re less likely to forget something important such as a special birthday or anniversary. It’s true that some people seem to have an excellent memory, while others are more prone to being forgetful. There are also certain scenarios that can affect your memory and cognitive function. These include:
  • Poor concentration: When level of concentration is affected, may not notice things as much. That’s because it can affect ability to retain information as would normally. Poor concentration can be a result of being tired or feeling bored. However, it can also be related to other psychological conditions.
  • Physical illness: When feel ill, it can affect concentration and memory. Certain illnesses can also directly affect the way brain works. For example, an underactive thyroid can slow your body’s functions down. This includes the functions of your brain, which can make you more forgetful. Chest infections and urine infections can also sometimes cause sudden confusion and memory problems, particularly in older people.
  • Lack of sleep: Having a poor night’s sleep can cause temporary issues with memory and cognitive function. Poor sleep can impair ability to focus and learn efficiently. Additionally, sleep plays a crucial role in helping our memories to ‘stick’ so that they can be recalled in the future.
  • Medicines: Certain medicines can cause confusion and memory loss in some people. These include some sedative medicines, some painkilling drugs, and steroid medicines.
  • Stress: The excessive release of stress hormones like cortisol can affect long-term memory recall. Stress can also affect our cognitive function on a short-term basis by making it difficult to pay attention and focus on tasks at hand and chronic stress over time may result in mild memory impairment. However, normal level of stress can also improve short-term, immediate memory recall.
  • Ageing: As we get older, it can become more difficult to remember things. This is known as age-associated memory impairment. Many older people have this common problem, which is usually due to the expected cognitive decline in normal ageing and not necessarily the development of a disorder. It can be harder to learn new skills as we get older, and you might find you more easily forget the names of people you have recently met.

Things to look out for

As we get older, a certain amount of cognitive decline is normal. You may have days when it’s more difficult to remember something – whether that’s recalling a particular memory or finding the words you need to express yourself during a conversation – while on other days, you might find your memory is pin sharp and you don’t have any problems with your ability to communicate.

However, in mild cognitive impairment, the changes in your cognitive abilities tend to exceed the normal and expected changes that are related to getting older.

Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment are often vague and are characterised by problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgement. They include memory loss, language disturbance (difficulty in finding the right words), attention deficit (difficulty in following or focusing on conversations), and disorientation in familiar surroundings.

Age-related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment might increase the risk of dementia, however in cases where mild cognitive impairment is caused by a general health condition (such as sleep deprivation) cognition can be improved or remain stable if the cause is addressed.

Who might be susceptible?

As we get older, it often becomes more difficult to remember things. This is known as age-associated memory impairment. It’s a common part of ageing, but it is not related to dementia.

If you have age-associated memory impairment, you might find learning new skills tends to get harder the older you become, or you may easily forget the names of people you have recently met.

It’s thought that using your brain as you get older may help to counteract the development of this age-related decline in your memory function and cognitive abilities.1

Many memory tests and quizzes are available online that can help to indicate whether your forgetfulness might be a cause for concern. They may suggest talking to your doctor about any memory loss symptoms or signs of cognitive decline you have been experiencing.

What can we do to maintain good memory and cognitive function?

Minor lapses in memory from time to time are relatively common, and people of all ages commonly use simple memory aid techniques such as creating a shopping list before heading to the supermarket or setting phone reminders for forthcoming events.

There are many ways to help maintain good memory and cognitive function.

Reading regularly, having a go at a daily Sudoku puzzle or newspaper crossword, memorising words from poetry or a play, or learning something new can all help to keep memory in good shape.

Memory lapses can be exacerbated by tiredness, feeling unwell, stress, anxiety, and trying to concentrate on too many things at once. Steps that can be taken to improve wellbeing include eating well, participating in regular exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and keeping the mind active. These can all benefit both physical and mental wellbeing.

Diet

Eating a healthy, varied diet provides the brain with essential nutrients that can help to maintain good cognitive function.

It is helpful to eat foods rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids (found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, and vegan sources such as flax seeds), follow a Mediterranean diet (rich in healthy, unsaturated fats) and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, which can help in age-related cognitive decline by lowering inflammation in the brain.

In addition, some dietary supplements can be used to support normal cognitive function.

Exercise

Physical exercise can help to boost cognitive function and memory indirectly by improving mood, reducing stress and promoting better sleep, and directly by reducing inflammation, improving blood flow to the brain and boosting chemicals in the brain that affect the growth of new brain cells.

Daily exercise, however minimal, can help get the body moving and keep the brain healthy. Exercise such as walking, team sports, aerobics, cycling, going to the gym, and even yoga can all help with cognitive function and boosting memory.

Techniques for good cognitive function

In addition, there are a number of specific techniques that may help to improve memory retention:

  • Meditation: When we meditate, we learn how to be mindful, and this can have a profound effect on the brain. Research has found that participating in daily meditation for just eight weeks can lead to changes in the grey matter of the brain (the area that is responsible for emotional regulation, planning, and problem solving). Mindfulness has also been shown to increase the density of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is connected to memory and learning.
  • Visualisation: Using this approach can lead to improved memory retention. The trick is to engage your senses when you create an image in your mind of what you want to remember. Visualisation can help to create strong memories by providing as much detail as possible, using the combined senses to consider how something looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes.
  • ‘Chunking’: Our brains are primed to look for patterns and make connections. This is why long lines of numbers or big lists often don’t stick in our minds. When you also consider that your short-term memory is limited in what it can contain, grouping items together is an effective way to create patterns your brain will find easier to remember.
    Chunking is based on mnemonic practice (a system of creating patterns with lists and ideas to help with remembering) and can be used as both a verbal and a visual aid. For example, grouping together items on a shopping list into smaller chunks, perhaps based on types of food, or reading them out loud can help to prime them in your mind.
  • Activity: Keeping the brain active is important for maintaining good cognitive function and improving memory. This might include intellectual stimulation such as doing crosswords or other puzzles, social interaction including seeing friends and family or Activity: Keeping the brain active is important for maintaining good cognitive function and improving memory. This might include intellectual stimulation such as doing crosswords or other puzzles, social interaction including seeing friends and family or joining a social club, and memory training, which can be as simple as observing the world around you and noting and visualising details.

Scientific studies

Research into memory and cognitive function is varied and widespread, from studies using neuroimaging to help understand the biology of memory impairment in old age, to experimental psychology methods (testing behavioural theories of the mind), as well as looking at intervention techniques such as cognitive training and lifestyle adjustments to improve memory and cognitive function.

For example, research has found that having a positive outlook on life can protect your memory as you age. People who feel enthusiastic and cheerful have what psychologists call a ‘positive affect’ and researchers found this can protect against steeper memory decline in older age.

Referenced sources

  1.  Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
  2. Konovalov A, Krajbich I. Neurocomputational dynamics of sequence learning. Neuron. 2018;98(6):1282-1293.e4. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2018.05.013
  3. Park DC, Festini SB. Theories of memory and aging: a look at the past and a glimpse of the future. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2017;72(1): 82-90. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbw066
  4. Hittner EF, Stephens JE, Turiano NA, Gerstorf D, Lachman ME, Haase CM. Positive affect is associated with less memory decline: evidence from a 9-year longitudinal study. Psychol Sci. 2020;31(11):1386-1395. doi:10.1177/0956797620953883
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