How Memory Training Can Improve Memory and Cognition

Understanding How Brain Games Work, When Not to Use Them, and How to Improve Your Memory

Key takeaways

  • Improving memory function, especially in people with fatigue, brain fog, or memory loss, starts with improving lifestyle and gut health.
  • Additional lifestyle changes include improving sleep and getting adequate exercise.
  • Supplements, brain training games, and nootropics can give your memory and cognition an extra boost.

Struggling with brain fog, having a hard time at work, or difficulty remembering people’s names? Or are you feeling pretty good and hoping to take your memory and cognitive performance to the next level? Maybe someone in your life has dementia and you want to know how to help them. 

No matter what your starting point is, there’s a memory training strategy out there for you. You may have heard about memory training games, supplements to improve cognitive abilities, or memorization tricks to remember what you read and learn. This article will discuss what types of memory training actually work and when to use them.  

memory training: Side profile of a woman with parts of her head fading away

What Is Memory Training?

There is actually no official definition of memory training. In general, it means anything that helps improve memory and cognition. Memory includes not just recollection of facts, but also our ability to do everyday things like tie our shoes, remember life events, know our emotional connection and relationship to others, and solve problems.

How Memory Works

A memory is a stored pattern, created by the neurons in the brain. Memory involves both manipulating and storing knowledge. In the brain, we receive information (from an event, learning a new hobby, reading, or from something we see, smell, or hear). Our brains work with that knowledge and either use it right away (short-term memory) or store it for later use. 

memory training: Person holding a paper cutout with the shape of a human head with pieces of it fading away

Who Might Need or Want Memory Training?

Depending on your individual situation and goals, your memory training path may look a little different. In this article, we’ll cover these three categories of memory training:

  1. You’re generally doing well but want to optimize your memory. You aren’t experiencing gaps in memory or struggling with cognition (ability to solve problems and make decisions.) You want to increase working memory capacity, strengthen your cognitive skills, improve academic performance, and process things faster.
  2. You’re experiencing memory and cognition problems that impair your quality of life and do not know why. You may be experiencing brain fog, fatigue, struggling to complete tasks that were once easy for you, forgetting life events, or unable to keep up at work or school.
  3. You want to help a loved one with diagnosed or suspected Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. You want to know how to improve their daily functioning and possibly slow the rate of disease. 

First let’s look at what is helpful for everyone when it comes to living a memory supportive life.

Living a Memory Supportive Life

Many factors can contribute to memory impairment and cognitive decline. However, a few key lifestyle factors can support brain health in most people:

  1. Decreasing neuroinflammation and insulin resistance with a brain healthy diet.
  2. Getting brain supportive exercise.
  3. Practicing good sleep hygiene.

We’ll look at each of these in turn.

memory training: Paleo diet infographic by Dr. Ruscio

What Is a Brain Healthy Diet?

Neuroinflammation (inflammation of the brain) has been shown to contribute to cognitive and mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias and mental health disorders [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. There are many possible causes of neuroinflammation, but the most common is an inflammatory diet. 

Insulin resistance has also been found to cause neuroinflammation and be a contributing factor in cognitive decline, brain fog, mental health issues, and dementia [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Studies show that an anti-inflammatory diet, which is low in sugar and processed foods:

Tips for a Brain Healthy Diet:

  • A Paleo diet is a good option for many people, as it helps to remove inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, and legumes as well as processed foods and sugars.
  • Keep glucose levels in check by eating a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
memory training: Model of the human brain holding two dumbbells against a pink background

Exercise

We know that exercise improves overall health by improving cardiovascular function and increasing strength.

While research on exercise and more severe cases of memory impairment, like dementia, is still being gathered, we know that exercise generally helps the brain to:

Try to get both aerobic (commonly called cardio) training along with strength training as the combination has been shown to improve memory and cognition [28 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Sleep Hygiene

How Memory Training Can Improve Memory and Cognition - How%20Sleep%20Improves%20Brain%20Health Landscape L

Good sleep is essential for brain health. Inadequate sleep can lead or contribute to brain fog, difficulty focusing, difficulty learning, poor memory, and dementia. 

Here are some of the ways poor sleep affects the brain:

Tips for better sleep:

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
  • Get 15 minutes of sun within an hour of waking to support the circadian rhythm, which helps control the hormones of sleep (cortisol and melatonin.)
  • Wear blue-light blocking glasses two hours before bed to help start melatonin production.
  • Block all light in your room with blackout curtains and/or wearing a good sleep mask.

Now that you have a general base for memory support, let’s look at how you might optimize your memory.

How to Optimize for Better Memory and Performance

If your brain function is generally strong and you are just looking for cognition and memory improvement, there are a few types of brain games and supplements that might help.

Keep in mind that brain games and supplements are not a substitute for fixing any underlying causes of cognitive decline. 

Woman sitting on the couch while playing number games in her mobile phone

How Brain Games Work 

Simply put, the brain learns things through repetition. When we do a task over and over again, synapses in the brain fire in a pattern that allows us to complete the task. When we do this enough, for example, when learning to play an instrument, the synaptic structure becomes so strong (and gets stored in long-term memory) that it becomes automated.

Memory games mainly work to improve working memory (information we can hold in our mind and work with in the present moment,) such as remembering a string of numbers or a grocery list. This is why some people keep repeating a list over and over again to remember it. 

Memory games use techniques like mnemonic devices (brain exercises used by memory champions,) chunking, and method of loci to help improve working memory skills and remember things like names and lists of words more easily [33 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

A few key points to understand when it comes to brain games:

  1. If you’ve played a game for a long time, effectiveness goes down because the process becomes automated. Continually learning new things is important in improving cognition [34 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Try games that are completely new to you for better effectiveness [35 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  2. Games do not repair the brain or reverse dementia, despite some claims [36 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 37 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 38 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Rather, the games strengthen the neural networks that allow you to play the game, which get you better at playing games or doing tasks that are similar to the game.  

So, should you try brain games? For people without cognitive decline or other brain health issues, games may improve processing time, working memory, and executive functioning in children and adults [39 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 40 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 41 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 42 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 43 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Tips for Brain Games and Brain Exercises

  • Participate in new types of exercise or learning a new sport. This not only gives the benefits of exercise mentioned above, but can also train different areas of the brain [44 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 45 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Learn memory techniques such as how to create a memory palace or chunking. A memory palace is a mnemonic strategy used by memory athletes which involves using various auditory and visual memorization systems to recall information [33 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 46]. One example of this is chunking, in which you take a whole bunch of small pieces of information and “chunk” them into larger groups, making the total number of things you need to remember smaller. For example, many people who remember phone numbers do not remember the 10 numbers in a string, but in chunks of 3, 3, 4.
  • Try brain game apps. Apps like BrainHQ, CogniFit, or Cogmed Working Memory Training create a memory training program for you. 

Brain Supportive Supplements

Nootropic mixes (non-pharmacological and pharmacological substances/supplements) and supplements have been found to help with cognition and brain function, with the most positive effects being in people who are healthy. 

Here are some supplements with the most supporting research for memory improvement:

SupplementHow it may helpWhere to get it
B vitamins: folate, B12 and B6 Improved cognition and episodic memory in adults without dementia as well as some in people with minimal cognitive impairment [47 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 48 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]

May promote myelination, which helps in nerve conduction in the brain [49 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Good quality pill supplement with a mix of B vitamins

Foods that are high in B vitamins such as beef liver, asparagus, dark leafy green vegetables [50]
MultivitaminsImprove areas of cognition such as immediate recall (working memory) and motor planning [49 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 51 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]

Increases B vitamins, which help provide the benefits listed above
MultiSelect without Copper & Iron 
Turmeric (Curcumin) Improvements in long-term memory, visual memory, and attention

This improvement could be due to decreased inflammation and a reduction in amyloid and tau protein concentrations in areas of the brain that modulate mood and memory [52 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]
Include the spice in cooking or take a daily supplement 

Other supplements that have shown evidence of improving brain health and may be found in a nootropic mix:

To dive deeper into supplements, you can read our article, Supplements for Brain Health.

Interventions for Memory and Cognition Deficits

If you are having serious memory and cognition deficits, the path to improving your memory lies in addressing some of the root causes of memory impairment. Barring stroke, traumatic brain injury, or other acute injury to the brain, some of the most common issues that lead to memory trouble are issues with the brain/gut axis and/or brain liver axis. 

The Gut, Your Second Brain

How Memory Training Can Improve Memory and Cognition - The%20Gut Brain%20Connection Landscape L

The health of our gut directly influences the health of our brain:

Tips for Improving Gut and Brain Health 

Diet and probiotics are great starting places for improving your gut and brain health. Let’s take a look.

Gut Reset Diet

Eating an anti-inflammatory diet to help balance the gut microbiome, heal any damaged gut lining, and remove any microbes that may be causing a gut microbiome imbalance improves cognition and brain function [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 71 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 72 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

I recommend starting with a Paleo diet, which removes inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, and legumes. However, a more restrictive diet may be needed if you do not see enough gut health improvement. 

If you try a Paleo diet and are still having memory problems, you may want to try a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols) diet which removes foods that can feed bacterial overgrowths. This diet is particularly helpful if you have SIBO or IBS [73 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Vegetable salad with chicken and avocado on a plate surrounded by a knife, fork, lime, pepper, and table napkin

For people who have more severe cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s and other dementias) or mental health issues, an anti-inflammatory ketogenic diet has been shown to increase cognition. Recent case studies connect the diet to improvement in mental health disorders like schizophrenia [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 74 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. (The research on mental illness is still preliminary and clinical trials are needed.) 

With a ketogenic diet, the body gets into a metabolic state of ketosis, using ketones (and some glucose) to fuel the body and brain. It decreases insulin resistance and regulates blood sugar, which we discussed earlier as being a factor in poor brain function. A ketogenic diet is still anti-inflammatory, so the foods are similar to a Paleo diet, but carbohydrates stay low. The macronutrient ratio for a keto diet is generally 5% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 70% healthy fats.

Probiotic Support

Probiotics can help support your gut reset by balancing the gut microbiome, thus improving the gut-brain axis. 

Here is a simple chart to show you how you can add probiotics into your life:

Probiotics easy protocol infographic by Dr. Ruscio

Memory Training and Support for People with Dementia

While people with dementia have cognitive decline, studies where a mix of interventions were used, such as lifestyle changes, training working memory tasks, and executive function, show  improvement in cognitive function and quality of life [80 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 81 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Working memory is often impaired early on in dementia, which is why people struggle with completing a task, remembering the steps to button a shirt, or how to pay bills. All of this information is stored in their procedural memory, but they have a hard time bringing it into working memory to use the information in the present moment. 

There are two key ways to improve memory for people with dementia:

  • Spaced retrieval. Spaced retrieval, which involves exposure to new information and using that information after increasingly longer time periods and supports procedural memory, has been shown to help people with dementia with daily life tasks and remembering words and concepts [82 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 83 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 84 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Environmental cues. Environmental cues target poor working memory and procedural memory. These ask the brain to bring into working memory how to complete a task or a reminder to do a task.
    • These include step directions signage (how to button a shirt) leaving out an item you want a person to use (for example a pitcher of water and a cup or taking the cabinet doors off so they can see the cups), providing wayfinding signs (signs to find the bathroom in your home), and decreasing clutter so people can focus on  improve quality of life and memory for people with dementia and help them function more independently [85 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 86 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 87].

Choosing the Right Memory Training For You  

Depending on how your memory is currently working, you will want to choose what kind of interventions you want to implement. Even if you’re doing quite well, eat a low-inflammatory diet, get good sleep and proper exercise, and challenge your brain with new activities (we recommend this to all levels of cognitive health).

Here is a quick summary of ways to improve your memory: 

  • If you have good cognition but want to optimize your brain even more, you can try adding some brain support supplements. 
  • If you have significant memory impairment or other brain health issues, follow the rest-reset-remove steps to help resolve any root issues that may lead to a poor gut-brain and gut-brain-liver connection. Also get good sleep and proper exercise and challenge your brain.
  • If you are looking to help a loved one with dementia, big changes to diet may be difficult for someone with memory impairment, so consider those with your whole care team, especially your loved one’s doctor. 
  • Whether or not you try dietary interventions, you can greatly increase their quality of life (and decrease caregiver stress) by using spaced retrieval and environmental cues. 

If you want to take a closer look at your cognitive function or that of a loved one and want support with a more targeted and personalized approach, reach out to our clinic. 

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