Memory matters. It’s not only the key to preventing you from totally blanking in the middle of a final exam; it’s also a vital part of what makes us who we are. But memory isn’t a guarantee—it’s something you need to actively cultivate and protect. It’s especially important in light of the fact that the rates of Alzheimer’s disease are on the rise.
Improving your memory now is a win-win: You’ll boost your test scores and protect your mind from future cognitive decline.
How to improve your memory now
You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to improve your memory—it’s actually pretty simple. Research shows that improving and protecting your memory right now is as easy as making a few changes to your routine.
A lot of things are happening in your brain while you’re asleep. “You think your brain is resting, but actually your brain is doing a lot of work,” says Dr. Sharon Sha, Clinical Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders in California. One of the most important functions? Consolidating events from your day (aka short-term memories) into long-term memories.
Recent research also suggests that a lack of sleep can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Sha. It has to do with amyloid protein buildup, which is found in the brains of people with the disease. “People who sleep more tend to have less of this bad amyloid protein that builds up,” says Dr. Sha.
For decades, we’ve known regular exercise is important for a whole slew of health reasons, but scientists are just starting to learn how regular workouts can boost memory. A 2017 review of research on exercise and brain function among adolescents found that aerobic exercise (aka the kind that gets your heart pumping) may improve cognitive ability—including short-term memory.
Scientists are still working to understand the exact reason why, but Dr. Sha explains it may have something to do with brain-derived nerve growth factor, or BDNF, which works in part to “enhance the brain’s connections and the way they talk to each other,” she says.
“I think the best way to protect your memory begins by being conscientious of your health decisions, like eating a balanced diet,” says Jewel B., a recent graduate of Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She’s on to something: A growing body of research has begun to explore the “gut-brain connection”—the link between your microbiome and your brain.
In a 2017 study, researchers fed rats a gut health-boosting probiotic and found “robust improvements” in both short-term and long-term memory tests. Research in humans is still early, but it does suggest that maintaining a healthy gut via a nutritious, balanced diet (e.g., low in processed foods and rich in whole grains, veggies, and foods with naturally occurring probiotics, like yogurt and fermented foods) could help you stay ahead of the curve in class.
Repetition and structured breaks could be the edge you need for your next test. Students whose teachers used a rapid-repetition technique of reviewing information in three bursts of 20 minutes or less with 10-minute breaks for physical activity between each study session scored just as well or higher on tests when compared to those who learned course material over a longer period of time.
If your professors aren’t using this technique in class, you can still use it when you study: Review the content for 20 minutes, take a 10-minute break, and repeat. “If I need to memorize material, I use the repetition technique: repeatedly going over the material by reading it, writing it, as well as [saying it] out loud,” says Amir D., a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick.
“I use an app called Focus Keeper that lets me set the amount of time I want to study for ‘each round’ and gives a 5- or 10-minute break after each round is done,” says Satveer D., a third-year student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “This keeps me from getting distracted.”
It also helps to test yourself periodically. “The repetition will retrain your brain to learn that material again and strengthen it—then see if you can recall it at least 30 minutes later,” says Dr. Sha. “If I need to remember the material not by memorizing, I try to have a deep understanding of it, which is mainly done by either making a summary of the material during and after studying it or by explaining it to someone else unfamiliar with the material (like my little brother),” says Amir.
In other words, cramming for a test isn’t doing your brain—or your grades—any favours. “When you cram the night before, you’re not even sure how much you’ve actually retained,” explains Dr. Sha, “or how well you would perform on the test the next day.”
Sharon J. Sha, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Stanford Center for Memory Disorders, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
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