How to Improve Memory & Help Prevent Memory Loss

"Memory" is the complicated process in which we register, retain, and recall experiences, thoughts, feelings, sensations, ideas, and knowledge. Improving memory and avoiding memory problems is an important goal—especially as we age. Did you know that:

  • Normal memory loss can begin as early as your 20s
  • You can train your brain to help keep recall sharp
  • A "senior moment" is not necessarily a warning sign of dementia

How Memory Works

Say the name of your first crush. Then thank your hippocampus, a small, S-shaped region in your brain that processes memories. It receives sensory data—sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch—and decides what to toss (last Tuesday's lunch menu, for example) and what to save. The hippocampus then sends memories off for storage, so they can be recalled and used.

The temporal lobes store episodic memory, which allows you to learn new information. The cerebral cortex and temporal lobes house semantic memory, which governs the retrieval of facts. The cerebellum stores procedural memory, for learning skills. The prefrontal cortex houses working memory, such as concentration and short-term information.

Memories are warehoused in different places in the brain according to their purpose, and researchers have identified four major memory systems. Episodic memory allows you to learn new information and recall recent events. Semantic memory manages facts and the ability to recognize, name and categorize people and objects. Procedural memory allows you to learn skills that become automatic, such as swimming. Working memory allows you to concentrate and temporarily store key information such as phone numbers and directions.

These four systems have been plugging away since before you were born, forming the memories and abilities that make you who you are. But in young adulthood, a process called age-associated memory loss begins to take hold. Contrary to a common misconception, the brain doesn't "lose" nerve cells (neurons) as it ages. But nerve cells do begin to shrink in your 20s. And if other risk factors for memory loss are controlled, 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week is one of the most effective ways to keep your brain sharp as you age.

From our sister publication, REMEDY's Healthy Living, Spring 2011

Publication Review By: Deborah M. Burke, Ph.D., Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., Nancy Johnson, Ph.D.

Published: 08 Feb 2011

Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015