Can You Improve Your Memory Recall And Retention?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We rely on our memory for so many aspects of life that it can be easy to take it for granted. We generally assume that when we get up in the morning, we’ll remember how to walk to the bathroom, how to get to work, what our names are, and even what the numbers on the clock mean. Without memory, we would likely be stuck in a very confusing world. The signs and effects of memory loss can feel alarming, but there are a handful of science-backed habits that may help support memory recall and retention. Read on to learn more about which habits seem to be most important for the long-term health of your brain and its memory functions.

Depression and other conditions can affect memory

How memory works: The basics

Memory is the result of a series of electrical signals within the brain that replicate the same patterns over and over. As you repeat a pattern, it becomes more familiar, and this familiarity can then be stored as cellular memory so it can later be recalled. This is what memory is at its core: like a forest path that’s been walked over and over, so much so that it almost appears to be a part of the natural landscape.

These patterns and pathways in our brains use nerve cells called neurons. The more the connection between neurons is used, the stronger the pathway becomes. If the pattern stops being used for a while, the brain “loses” the pattern to make way for the ones that are used more often.

Factors that may contribute to decreased memory function

How strong a person’s memory is can depend on many factors. For example, we’re all more likely to remember events in our lives that we perceive to be more important or affecting than others. You likely remember more about your first day at a new job or the day when you had to give a big presentation than you do about your forty-seventh day when nothing out of the ordinary happened. How much sleep we’ve had can also play a role. Not enough can reduce our learning and memory abilities by up to 40%, as it becomes harder for our brains to create new pathways to consolidate and retain new information without sufficient rest.

Aging, as most people know, is another factor that can gradually begin to affect memory. Our neurons lose their plasticity as we get older, meaning they don’t conduct electrical impulses as well so they can’t create and store memories as efficiently. This can lead to garbled or even lost memories.

While some level of this type of memory loss is normal and inevitable as we age, it may be possible to slow the process somewhat through the healthy habits outlined below.

Finally, note that Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, head injuries, and other health concerns that affect the brain may impact memory processing. Some mental health conditions like depression can also affect an individual’s ability to recall or retain memories, though treatment may help reverse the problem in this case. Those who live with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might also experience lower memory retention as a result of their brain constantly juggling distractions. 

Tips for improving memory recall and retention

Memory recall is the ability to retrieve past information, and retention is the ability to do so over time. Both are key functions of memory in general, which may be possible to improve in some cases through the following habits and strategies.

Engage in regular physical exercise

Getting regular physical exercise has been linked to improved memory by the American Geriatrics Society, among others. Their analysis suggests that moderate-intensity exercise for one to two hours a week—particularly exercise that engages the mind-body connection, such as tai-chi or dance—may be “beneficial to improving global cognition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, verbal fluency, and learning” in older adults in particular. 

It seems that cardiovascular exercise can also promote memory recall and retention by increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning. That means activities such as jogging, walking, swimming, or playing sports, for example, can cause your brain to release chemicals that help it grow new blood vessels and cells. As a result, finding a physical activity you enjoy and aiming to incorporate it into your regular routine can be helpful if you’re trying to boost your memory abilities.

Eat nutritious foods

The foods you eat can also affect the overall health of your brain and its many functions, including memory. One research paper on the topic suggests that a diet high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar can result in “enduring alterations” to parts of the brain associated with memory as well as reduced cognitive function overall. There is evidence to suggest that the Mediterranean diet in particular is associated with better working and episodic memory. This diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, seafood, and whole grains and low in sugar, heavily processed foods, and refined grains. 

Get enough sleep

The relationship between sleep and memory is interlinked and complex. Research suggests that deep sleep in particular allows for your memories to be properly formed and filed away. As discussed above, a lack of sleep can significantly reduce your brain’s ability to complete these tasks adequately. How much sleep you need varies somewhat from person to person, but in general, seven to nine hours is recommended for the average adult.

Try memory-boosting exercises

Research also suggests that certain memory-boosting exercises may also help enhance memory function when practiced consistently and correctly. Examples of activities that could help include:

  • Learning a new skill, such as how to play an instrument
  • Learning a new language
  • Doing puzzles (jigsaw, crosswords, sudoku, etc.)
  • Playing video games, especially action or strategy games
  • Participating in activities that engage multiple senses

Activities like these may help encourage the growth of new nerve cells and improve their communication, which may result in better cognitive function overall.

Cultivate a meditation practice

Meditation is an ancient cultural and spiritual practice that originated in various Indian cultures, and it relates to training and focusing one’s attention. There are many different types, but one of the most popular today is mindfulness meditation—the practice of cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of your feelings and surroundings. It’s become popular worldwide partly because research in recent years has suggested its many potential health benefits. One is that it may help improve episodic memory, according to a 2019 study. Even 10–15 minutes per day could be enough to produce some benefits.

Consult a professional

Because there are so many factors that can affect memory health, there is no one prescription for improving this ability. If you’re concerned, it may be best to seek out professional guidance—particularly if you’re worried about long-term memory loss. You can consult a doctor to receive a memory test and a health evaluation. 

If you believe you may be experiencing a mental health condition like depression or ADHD that’s impacting your memory, you might choose to speak with a mental health professional. They can help address your symptoms and support you in uncovering memory tricks or strategies that may improve your functioning in this area. For those who are experiencing memory loss as a result of another health condition that affects the brain or because of natural aging processes, a therapist can also offer a safe space to express frustration, concern, or other feelings about this and work on building healthy coping mechanisms for difficult emotions.

Those who are looking to meet with a therapist can typically choose to seek their help in person or virtually. Since many people have busy schedules, online therapy often represents a more convenient format for receiving care. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy and in-person therapy can be equally effective in many cases, so you can typically choose whichever format makes you feel more comfortable.

Takeaway

There are various lifestyle changes that may help improve memory recall and retention in some cases, such as eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and practicing meditation. If you’re looking to address symptoms of a mental health condition that may be affecting your memory or to get support in coping with natural memory changes as a result of aging, speaking with a therapist may be useful. 

Improve your memory with professional support

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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