Your memory is a personal storehouse of information which, with age, tends to become less like a filing cabinet and more like a sieve. Facts get harder to store and retrieve – especially the memories you most recently laid down. While mild forgetfulness is normal, several supplements can provide a useful memory boost, of which the most important are omega-3 fish oils.
Omega-3 fish oils for memory
Oily fish are traditionally referred to as ‘brain food’ as they supply a rich blend of nutrients needed by brain cells, including protein, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA), vitamin D and phospholipids such as phosphatidylserine.
The omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, play a vital role in cognitive function, which essentially is the ability to think straight. DHA is incorporated into brain cell membranes, keeping them flexible for rapid transmission of nerve impulses, while EPA is involved in cell signalling and communication.
Normal aging is associated with a loss of brain volume, but a good intake of omega-3 may help to prevent this, especially in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in memory.
Data from 15 trials, involving over 7000 people with mild memory complaints, found significant improvements in immediate recall for those taking more than 1g omega 3 fish oil per day.
Typically, one gram of high-strength fish oil contains around 500mg of the important long-chain EPA and DHA (check label claims). DHA may be more beneficial than EPA.
If you eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, fresh tuna) twice a week, then an omega-3 fish oil supplement supplying 300mg to 500mg total DHA and EPA per day is sufficient to provide brain benefits. If you eat little or no oily fish, a supplement supplying 600mg to 1g total DHA and EPA is ideal.
NB If you have a clotting disorder or take blood-thinning medication, seek advice from your doctor before taking an omega-3 fish oil supplement.
B vitamins for memory
B vitamins are needed for energy production in brain cells and have beneficial effects on mood and clarity of thought. Vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and folic acid also lower blood levels of homocysteine, a harmful amino acid which can damage arteries and impair blood flow to the brain. Folic acid in particular may help to slow the age-related decline in memory and thinking power.
Analysis of the results from five trials suggest that B vitamin supplements have moderate beneficial effects on memory, but not on general cognitive function. Their effectiveness may relate to your omega-3 status, however.
Oxford scientists have found that, in people with Alzheimer’s disease, taking high dose B vitamins (800 mcg folic acid, 20 mg vitamin B6 and 500mcg vitamin B12) slows the progression of brain shrinkage by 40% compared with placebo – but only if blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were also high.
In people with a raised homocysteine level, the rate of brain shrinkage was reduced even further by 70%. These findings were hailed as a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Vitamin D for memory
In an international consensus, experts have agreed that low levels of vitamin D increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older people, and that deficiency should be treated with supplements.
Diet should always come first, so eat more oily fish which supplies DHA, EPA and vitamin D all in one.
If you don’t like fish, vitamin D supplements are important – especially during autumn and winter months in cold climates, when UV levels are too low to trigger vitamin D synthesis in the skin.
Vitamin D supplements are also important if you are taking a statin drug.
Ginkgo biloba for memory
The Ginkgo biloba tree is one of the oldest surviving species, dating back over 270 million years. Its fan-shaped leaves contain unique antioxidants called ginkgolides and bilobalides. These relax blood vessel walls, reduce blood stickiness and increase red blood cell flexibility to improve blood flow to the peripheries, including the brain.
Ginkgo is one of the most widely used herbal medicines for improving short-term working memory, concentration and thought processes – probably by improving blood circulation and the supply of oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to the brain.
A growing body of evidence also suggests that ginkgo extracts have a protective effect on brain cells and can reduce the build-up of amyloid which is associated with some forms of dementia.
The results from nine trials, involving over 2,500 people, found that Ginkgo supplements (240mg per day) were more effective than placebo for improving cognition. Ginkgo was also able to stabilise or slow the decline in behaviour and daily function in people with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, with no safety concerns.
Select extracts standardised to provide a known amount of ginkgolides (eg at least 24%) which are made to pharmaceutical standards (GMP) to ensure the lowest possible amount of an undesirable substance called ginkgolic acid.
NB Seek medical advice before taking Ginkgo if you are taking any prescribed drugs, including blood thinning treatments, and antidepressants as interactions can occur. If you have diabetes, monitor blood glucose levels closely.
Phosphatidylserine for memory
Phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid that occurs naturally in the body and is found in foods such as mackerel, herring, liver, kidneys and white beans.
The molecular structure of phosphatidylserine resembles an old-fashioned, gipsy clothes peg, with a head at one end from which two tails stick down. Because of their shape, phosphatidylserine molecules line up to form a two-layered membrane which is more fluid than solid. This fluidity speeds the transmission of electrical and chemical messages from one brain cell to another – a beneficial effect that is enhanced when the tails of the molecule consist of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA.
Phosphatidylserine also regulates the release of nerve cell communication chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as acetylcholine, dopamine and noradrenaline.
Phosphatidylserine supplements are absorbed efficiently, cross the blood-brain barrier, and help to slow, halt, or even reverse some of the biochemical alterations and structural deterioration that occurs in ageing brain cells. Numerous studies show that phosphatidylserine supplements at doses of 300mg to 800mg per day can improve short-term memory, the consolidation of long-term memory, the ability to create new memories and to recall information. Beneficial improvements also occur in the ability to focus and concentrate, reason and solve problems. Phosphatidylserine supplements may also help people with early Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Some phosphatidylserine supplements are produced commercially from soybeans, while others are soy-free.
Combination supplements for memory
Some supplements include a combination of the above memory-boosting ingredients.
Although small, a study involving 27 older women compared the effects of taking a supplement (Efamol Active Memory) providing 1g DHA, 160mg EPA, 240mg Ginkgo biloba, 60mg phosphatidylserine, 20mg vitamin E, 1mg folic acid, and 20mcg vitamin B12 every day for six months, against placebo.
Significant improvements were seen in two out of four cognitive tests, with improved reaction times and word recall.
Mobility and improved habitual walking speed also improved.
Turmeric for memory
Turmeric is a source of curcumin, a polyphenol with powerful anti-inflammatory actions that is increasingly used to treat neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
Curcumin is a traditionally medicine used to improve cognitive decline and memory loss. A study involving 60 healthy adults aged 60-85 years assessed the effects of a lipid-soluble form of curcumin (400 mg as Longvida, which can cross the blood-brain barrier) on cognitive function.
The researchers found that working memory and mood (calmness, contentedness and stress-related fatigue) were significantly better after four weeks of treatment.
Significant effects on alertness and contentedness were also seen within 1 to 3 hours of a dose in those using it regularly.
Isoflavone supplements for memory
Isoflavones (eg genistein, daidzein, formononetin, biochanin A and glycitein) are plant hormones that have a similar structure to human oestrogens but which are five hundred to one thousand times less active at oestrogen receptors.
One of the main dietary sources of isoflavones is soy, which is rich in daidzein, genistein and glycitein. Sixty grams of soy protein provides 45 mg isoflavones.
A large review of modifiable risk factors that help to reduce cognitive aging analysed data from 24 trials and concluded that following a Mediterranean style diet rich in olive oil plus taking soy isoflavone supplements may improve memory.
Digestive bacteria convert daidzein into a more beneficial form called equol, so eat live bio yogurt or take a probiotic supplement for maximum effect.
Resveratrol for memory
Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant that helps to protect brain cells from age-related decline. Taking resveratrol supplements has beneficial effects on memory (word retention and recall) as a result of significant increases in connections between brain cells in the hippocampus – a part of the brain involved in memory processing.
A study involving healthy postmenopausal found that taking resveratrol supplements (75 mg twice daily) improved blood circulation in the brain, enhanced mood and cognition and might help to protect against dementia.
Looking after your memory
Following a healthy diet and lifestyle is just as important for your brain as it is for your heart.
Keeping physically active is protective by boosting blood flow to the brain. Older people who walked an average of one mile per day experienced less shrinkage of their grey matter over a nine-year period than those who were sedentary, for example, and were half as likely to experience muddled thinking.
Keeping mentally active is also vital to maintain the connections between brain cells – connections that are not used frequently are automatically pruned away.
- Read demanding books, tackle crosswords, Sudoku, jig-saws and other puzzles that need concentration.
- Scrabble and Trivial Pursuits are excellent for testing your memory skills. Play Scrabble with people around the world for free at isc.ro
- Learn at least one new fact, or memorise a few lines from a poem every day.
- To remember an important fact, keep repeating it silently to yourself.
- Write down memory-jogging notes.
- Form a mental photograph of where you put down easily misplaced items such as keys or glasses.
- Associate facts with a visual image eg when introduced to an artist, picture them holding an enormous painting brush. If their name is Brewer, like mine, picture them sitting on a beer barrel and so on. The more outrageous or unusual your image, the easier you will remember.
If poor memory becomes noticeably worse with time, seek medical advice.