A senior woman looks out at into a city park

Ways to Improve Cognitive Function and Memory

As we age, cognitive function – brain activities that lead to acquiring knowledge, such as reasoning ability, attention, language, and memory – can decline. There are many factors that can contribute to a decrease in memory, and scientists have determined that diet is one of the key reasons memory can fade with age.  

For example, one study found that people with the healthiest diets were 24 percent less likely to have a decline in cognitive function. Eating a poor diet can be a major risk factor in developing cardiovascular disease, as well as Alzheimer’s. Maintaining a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet can help, along with eating a diet low in saturated fats. A 2012 study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who ate a lot of food rich in saturated fats – the kind found in foods like butter and red meats – did worse on tests that measured memory and ability to think than women who ate less of these fats. The exact reason for the connection between diets that are high in trans fats and saturated fats, and diminished memory, isn’t entirely clear, but it may have something to do with a gene called apolipoprotein E, or APOE. This is associated with the level of cholesterol in your blood. People with a variation of this gene, known as APOE e4, are at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. “About 65% of individuals who wind up with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease in their 60s and 70s have that gene,” according to Dr. Gad Marshall, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. While researchers aren’t positive about the link between the APOE e4 gene and dementia, they have found that people with this genetic variation have a greater number of sticky protein clumps, called beta-amyloid plaques, in their brains. These plaque deposits are associated with the destruction of brain cells, and are frequently associated with Alzheimer’s. The connection is more apparent when talking about memory loss associated with blood vessel damage; the buildup of cholesterol plaques in blood vessels in the brain can damage tissue in the brain, either through small blockages that cause silent strokes, or larger, more catastrophic strokes. In either case, brain cells are deprived of the oxygen-rich blood needed to function on a normal basis, affecting memory and thinking.

Saturated fats are to blame for being harmful to the brain because of how they affect your blood; they raise the low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol in blood to an unhealthy level, causing build-up in your arteries which leads to damage in the heart and, eventually, to damage in the brain. To break it down to a relatable level, if you’re about to devour a juicy steak, you should know it’s loaded with saturated fat, which raises the LDL in your blood. Other kinds of fats, such as trans fats, do the same thing. The LDL cholesterol causes the formation of beta-amyloid plaque in the part of the brain where we store long-term memories, and is extremely difficult to eradicate, because once the damage is done, it’s difficult to reverse. Beta-amyloid plaque is directly linked to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

While it may be difficult to cut back on foods that contain a lot of saturated fats because so many people find them tasty, staying away from them is a critical way to preserve your memory and prevent Alzheimer’s. You’re better off with a diet of non-processed foods – such as fresh fruits and vegetables – which can help your LDL cholesterol stay at a normal level in your blood, preventing blockage in your arteries. It is known that LDL cholesterol builds up in, and damages, your arteries. “We know that’s bad for your heart. There is now a lot of evidence that it’s also bad for your brain,” according to Dr. Francine Grodstein, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Diets that are high in cholesterol and fat might speed up the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. They are sticky protein clusters which are blamed for much of the damage that occurs in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Avoiding alcohol and any wheat-based products is key is because they contribute to the build-up of beta-amyloid plaque, as well. That’s why it’s key to stick with a Mediterranean-based diet, rich in whole-grain breads, cereals, fruits, and vegetables, along with limiting dairy consumption.

As a rule, unless you have a nutritional deficiency, supplements won’t help you improve your memory. Vitamin deficiencies that would be most impacted by taking supplements are B vitamins, C, and D3. Some studies indicate that eating blueberries might be helpful, particularly on an empty stomach. There’s been quite a bit of buzz lately that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, grapes, berries, chocolate, and peanuts, might improve memory, but so far no studies have conclusively established that. While you’d have to drink several bottles of wine on a regular basis to get enough to make a discernible difference, resveratrol is now available as a concentrated supplement. It may activate sirtuins, proteins involved in the aging process. Resveratrol supplements are generally regarded as safe, although its use long-term has not been studied sufficiently to draw any conclusions as to its efficacy in improving long-term memory. There is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids and folic acid can help with memory improvement, but the jury is still out on that issue.

The bottom line: what we eat might have an impact on our ability to remember and increase the chances of developing dementia as we age. As you can see, it’s crucial to your memory that you stick to fresh and healthy foods to prevent Alzheimer’s. Here at South Coast Post Acute, our team of healthcare professionals work with dieticians to provide members of our care community with the healthiest meals possible. We understand it can difficult to stick to a healthy diet by yourself, so we make sure you are not alone. There are other ways besides your diet to improve your memory. Here are some useful tips compiled by the Mayo Clinic:

Make Being Physically Active a Part of Your Daily Routine. Physical activity increases blood flow to your entire body. This includes your brain. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes (an hour-and-a-half) each week of moderate aerobic activity such as brisk walking or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, like jogging. If you don’t have time for a full workout, you can walk for ten minutes several times a day. It’s been found that exercising at least three times a week has been linked to a lower risk for dementia. Vigorous aerobic exercise can also improve your circulation and perhaps blood flow in the brain. There also appears to be benefits to memory outside of increased blood circulation. Relief of stress and improved mood might factor into things, as well. It’s also been found that positive emotions can help memory.

Stay Mentally Active. Just as physical activity keeps your body in shape, mentally stimulating activities are good for your brain, and just might fend off memory loss. Reading, doing crossword puzzles or Soduko, playing bridge or chess, learning to play a musical instrument, and volunteering at a local non-profit or school are all great ways to train your brain to stay sharp. The more you make an effort to memorize, the easier it seems to get. You can also practice using visual-image associations and card counting, remembering long strings of numbers, and recounting what is on every page of a book or magazine. On a basic level, try memorizing your grocery or “to-do” list on a regular basis.

Get Social. Interacting with others can help fend off stress and depression, both of which can contribute to memory loss. Make it a point to get together with other people, whether it’s loved ones or friends. This is particularly important if you live alone.

Get and stay organized. You’re more likely to forget things if your house or apartment is messy, so clean things as you go along and keep a to-do list of upcoming appointments. It also helps to repeat items out loud as you’re adding them to your list, reinforcing the thoughts and helping to commit them to your memory. Keep your list current and check off items once they’ve been completed; if you focus on the information you’re trying to retain, you’re more likely to recall it later.

Pay Attention to Paying Attention. Aging can reduce your ability to focus and pay attention.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention and concentrate, learning how to filter out distractions. Have you ever opened the refrigerator door and forgotten what you were searching for, because another thought crossed your mind as you were opening the door? New learning has to be consolidated to form a lasting memory, which takes a little uninterrupted time and conscious rehearsal right after you learn it. Older adults are especially susceptible to having temporary memories wiped out by distractions. Memory allows the human brain to encode, store and retrieve information in three basic forms. First, we process stimuli with our sensory memory; information which is typically held in our brain for less than a second. This might explain why most people say that when they are shown an object quickly, they feel they need to absorb more details than they’re able to recall later. Second, the information is transferred to short-term memory, which is referred to as “working memory”, which allows us to mull things over and hold key information in our minds. Third, we store past events and patterns in our long-term memory, which is also known as episodic or semantic memory. Keep distractions to a minimum and don’t do too many things at once. It also helps if you find a spot for your glasses, wallet, and keys, so you’re always aware of where you left them.

Get Enough Sleep. Most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night; sleep plays a vital role in helping you consolidate your memories so that you can recall them down the road. Studies have found that as you sleep, your brain is processing the day’s events and consolidating them in memory – kind of an “off-line” rehearsal that takes place just for the learning experiences on the day of sleep. Naps also count, so don’t be embarrassed by sneaking in a few minutes of afternoon slumber. It’s also not good for your health to be tired, so getting the minimum amount of sleep is important to your overall well-being.

Manage Your Chronic Conditions. Follow your doctor’s orders! If you’re prescribed medications or other methods to help you deal with high blood pressure, your cholesterol level, diabetes, depression, obesity, or your hearing, make sure you follow them to the letter and use medicines such as statins or beta-blockers if you need them. Since medications can affect your memory, the better you take care of yourself, the better your memory is likely to be.

If You Smoke, Quit. Studies have found that smokers – especially those who smoke more than two packs a day between ages 50 and 60 – have a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia later in life. While the link between smoking and cancer and heart disease has been proven for years, researchers in Finland have found a connection between smoking and diseases that impact memory. They studied more than 21,000 people over a seven-year period and determined that 25 percent developed dementia and, of those, about a quarter were later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Watch Your Weight. There is a connection between being overweight and developing Alzheimer’s. While it’s not known exactly what causes the disease (risk factors can include age, family history and the presence of the APOE e4 gene) researchers are now investigating the connection between being overweight in mid-life and Alzheimer’s. They looked at almost 1,400 adults with no signs of cognitive decline and assessed their Body Mass Index (BMI) at the age of 50. They then did cognitive assessments every two years over a 14-year period, looking for signs of Alzheimer’s. Participants with a BMI of 25 or more were likely to develop Alzheimer’s seven months sooner than those at a healthy weight. Those with a BMI of 30 were more likely to develop the disease a full year earlier than those who had a BMI of 28. The researchers then analyzed 191 people who had died and found that, of the deceased, those with a higher BMI in midlife also had a higher amount of beta-amyloid proteins, a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s. This is further indication that lifestyle choices can make a difference when it comes to decreasing the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The study’s authors wrote that “Our findings raise the possibility that inexpensive, noninvasive interventions targeting midlife obesity and overweight could substantially alter the trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease, reducing its global public health and economic impact.” While it will require more research to see if a lower BMI in midlife delays the disease and whether there is a specific Body Mass Index that increases the risk, you should consult your doctor to determine a healthy weight range for your height. Medical professionals say a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered normal.


Here are the top ten signs and symptoms you may have Alzheimer’s:   

  • One of the most common signs – especially in the early stage of the disease – is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information repeatedly; increasingly needing to rely on memory aids, such as reminder notes or electronic devices; and asking family members to handle things that you used to handle on their own.
  • Experiencing changes in the ability to develop and follow a plan, or work with numbers. You may also have trouble following a familiar recipe, keeping track of monthly bills, difficulty concentrating and taking much longer to do things than you did before.
  • Difficulty completing routine tasks at home, work or at leisure. This can include driving to a familiar location; managing a budget at work; or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
  • Confusion with times and places, such as losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time; understanding something if it is not happening immediately; forgetting where you are and how you got there.
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. Some people have trouble with their vision, like reading, judging distance, or determining color or contrast, which may cause problems with driving.
  • New problems with words when speaking or writing, like following or joining a conversation; stopping in the middle of a conversation; struggling with vocabulary; or having problems finding the right word or calling things by the wrong name, like calling a “watch” a “hand-clock”.
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace your steps to find them.
  • Changes in judgment or decision-making, like using poor judgment when dealing with money; and paying less attention to grooming or keeping yourself clean.
  • Avoiding social situations or removing yourself from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports.
  • Changes in mood or personality, like becoming confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious, or becoming easily upset at home, at work, or with friends.

South Coast Post Acute is the post-acute community of choice for patients, providers, and caregivers in Southern California. If you or a loved one need it, our specialty Memory Care services are available to support those living with progressed stages of memory loss in a long-term care setting. Our Memory Care services are designed to provide an environment that is safe and comfortable while delivering a level of care that seeks to slow the siege of dementia. We use the most innovative medical techniques and provide individualized care, unique to the needs of each resident. Dietitians develop specialized meal plans and activities are offered that benefit physical wellness and mental acuity. Medications are strictly monitored and administered by healthcare professionals. Our team of doctors, nurses, therapists, and caregivers provides constant care and attention.

We provide the kind of care we would want for our loved ones.


Real People. Remarkable Care. South Coast Post Acute.


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