Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Understanding How Brain Games Work, When Not to Use Them, and How to Improve Your Memory
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.
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 are constantly receiving 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, store it for later use, or both.
Short-term memories are the types of memories we typically don’t need to store for long periods of time (like a grocery list). We may remember them for a couple of days but not weeks, months, or years later. Long-term memories, like an extended family member’s name, can be used right away and remembered over years.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Decreasing neuroinflammation and insulin resistance with a brain healthy diet.
Getting brain supportive exercise.
Practicing good sleep hygiene.
We’ll look at each of these in turn.
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, 2, 3, 4]. There are many possible causes of neuroinflammation, including 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, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10].
Studies show that an anti-inflammatory diet, which is low in sugar and processed foods:
May prevent or reduce leaky gut and brain inflammation, which then improves memory issues such as brain fog [11, 12]
May prevent or slow the progression of cognitive decline, such as dementia 
May balance blood sugar and improve insulin resistance, thereby improving cognitive decline [14, 15, 16]
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.
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:
Decrease neuroinflammation and leaky gut, which leads to less brain fog and better cognition [17, 18]
Improve cognition and executive functioning in people with dementia, as well as decrease insulin resistance [19, 20]
Improve processing speed, learning, attention, working memory, and language skills in teens and young adults 
Increase BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which supports neuroplasticity and thus memory and learning 
Improve sleep, which is important in supporting memory [23, 24]
Add in a sauna session after exercise to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF,) promote expression of heat shock proteins, and decrease brain inflammation, which may improve memory and cognition [25, 26, 27].
Try to get both aerobic (commonly called cardio) training along with strength training as the combination has been shown to improve memory and cognition .
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:
The amyloid plaques, associated with Alzheimer’s and some other dementias are cleared during sleep . Sleep deprivation leads to elevated amyloid plaque .
Studies on improving sleep hygiene in children found that better sleep decreases ADHD symptoms, improves working memory, and improves emotional wellbeing [31, 32].
Sleep is when memories are stored, learning is solidified, and the synapses between neurons are restored .
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.
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 .
A few key points to understand when it comes to brain games:
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 . Try games that are completely new to you for better effectiveness .
Games do not repair the brain or reverse dementia, despite some claims [36, 37, 38]. 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, 40, 41, 42, 43].
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, 45].
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, 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.
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:
How it may help
Where 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, 48]
May promote myelination, which helps in nerve conduction in the brain 
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 
Improve areas of cognition such as immediate recall (working memory) and motor planning [49, 51]
Increases B vitamins, which help provide the benefits listed above
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
The health of our gut directly influences the health of our brain:
Neurotransmitters that affect mental health, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are made in the gut and travel to the brain along the vagus nerve [62, 63].
The brain regulates digestion, so a problem in the brain can contribute to digestive issues.
An imbalanced gut microbiome can lead to leaky gut and inflammation and improper communication between the gut and brain [64, 65].
There is also a gut-brain-liver connection. A type of cognitive impairment that occurs in liver disease is called hepatic encephalopathy (HE). In HE, the liver does not do an adequate job of filtering toxins from the blood, and those toxins can travel to the brain. HE has been linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) which is an imbalance of gut bacteria [66, 67, 68, 69, 70].
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, 13, 71, 72].
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 .
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, 74]. (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.
Probiotics can help support your gut reset by balancing the gut microbiome, thus improving the gut-brain axis.
Probiotics can help improve mental health issues such as anxiety and PTSD [63, 75].
Probiotics have been shown to improve brain function in hepatic encephalopathy [70, 76, 77].
Probiotics may improve cognitive function, especially verbal memory and social-emotional cognition [78, 79].
Here is a simple chart to show you how you can add probiotics into your life:
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, 81].
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, 83, 84].
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, 86, 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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