Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
The Problem of Memory Loss
Memory loss is a worrying or even frightening situation, but it doesn't necessarily mean that a person is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. There are many causes of memory loss, including following a diet that lacks essential nutrients and eating harmful foods. One strategy that may boost memory is to eat a healthy diet containing specific foods and nutrients.
Anyone who has more than a very minor memory problem should visit a doctor. Eating suitable foods can often be a big help in dealing with a mild difficulty in remembering things, though in some cases it may not be the only treatment that's required. Getting regular physical and mental exercise as well as sufficient sleep and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also be helpful for memory difficulties.
A nutritious and healthy diet is beneficial for our overall well-being, including our ability to remember. It's always a good idea to follow the diet. It may not help some cases of memory loss, however. In this situation, a doctor must be consulted.
Vitamins B12 and B6, Folate, and Memory Loss
A vitamin B12 deficiency can interfere with nerve function and cause confusion and memory loss that resemble Alzheimer’s disease. A person with serious memory loss should be under the care of a doctor, but the doctor may discover that the solution to the patient’s problem is to take vitamin B12 supplements.
Older people (those over sixty years of age) are most likely to develop a low vitamin B12 level in their bodies. In order to be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine, vitamin B12 must first be separated from food. The stomach must be sufficiently acidic for this separation to happen. Older people may have low stomach acid, which hinders the extraction of the vitamin from food. Once the vitamin is removed from the food, it must bind with intrinsic factor, a substance made by the stomach lining, in order to be absorbed. Older people may not make enough intrinsic factor.
Inadequate vitamin B12 absorption can lead to other problems, such as anemia. If a person's diet contains insufficient amounts of vitamin B12, folate (or folic acid), and vitamin B6, a substance called homocysteine may build up in the body. Homocysteine has been shown to impair memory. It also raises the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Vitamin B12 in Food and Supplements
In supplements, vitamin B12 is not attached to food and is therefore unaffected by insufficient stomach acid. If a large enough dose of vitamin B12 is taken, some can be absorbed even without intrinsic factor. A person shouldn't take massive doses of the vitamin without a doctor’s advice, however.
A doctor may choose to give vitamin B12 shots or may prescribe sublingual vitamin B12 tablets. These tablets are placed under the tongue. As the tablet dissolves, some of the vitamin can be absorbed through the lining of the mouth, bypassing the digestive tract.
Boosting the intake of vitamin B12 from the diet may also be helpful. Only foods from animals contains the vitamin. These foods include meats, fish, dairy products, and eggs. Vegans eat no food from animal sources. Lots of vegan foods are fortified with vitamin B12, however. These include many non-dairy milks, vegan meat substitutes, and fortified cereals. It's not a good idea to eat massive amounts of one type of food in order to obtain a particular nutrient, though. A diet needs to be balanced.
Bacteria are used to produce the vitamin B12 in supplements and fortified foods. Some of the bacteria living in our large intestine make vitamin B12, too, but it's unclear how much of this nutrient we absorb. Most vitamin absorption takes place in the small intestine.
Correcting a vitamin B12, vitamin B6, or folate deficiency may solve a memory problem. I've found no evidence indicating that supplements containing these vitamins improve memory in people who already have adequate levels of each nutrient, however.
Food Sources of Folate (Folic Acid) and Vitamin B6
Leafy green vegetables are a good source of folate, which is a member of the vitamin B family. Synthetic folate is sold as folic acid. All of the B vitamins dissolve in water. Foods containing the vitamins shouldn't be cooked by a method that involves a lot of water, such as boiling, since some of the nutrients will enter the water and be lost.
Vitamin B6 is present in a wide variety of foods. These include meat, beans, cereals, fruits such as bananas, avocados, and prunes (or dried plums), and vegetables such as potatoes and sweet potatoes that still have their skin.
Vitamin D Deficiency and Memory Problems
Vitamin D is very important for cognitive functions such as thinking, reasoning, and remembering. The vitamin is made by our skin when ultraviolet light strikes it. Due to the valid concern about getting cancer from the sun’s rays, however, many people are wearing sunscreen on sunny days and are therefore making an inadequate amount of vitamin D.
People living at higher latitudes may have a problem with obtaining vitamin D in winter. At this time of year, sunlight is too weak to stimulate much vitamin D formation. In addition, older people and people who cover their skin due to religious beliefs often make an insufficient amount of the vitamin.
Vitamin D in Food and Supplements
Health experts are increasingly recommending that we take a vitamin D supplement. The vitamin seems to be very important in many body processes in addition to memory and is not present at high levels in most foods. One type of food that does contain significant quantities of the vitamin is oily fish. Salmon and sardines are examples of oily and healthy fish. Eggs yolks also contain vitamin D. The vitamin is added to dairy milk. Mushrooms contain a fungal form of the vitamin.
There are two types of vitamin D in food. Cholecalciferol or vitamin D3 is found in animals and is also made by the human skin. Ergosterol is made by fungi and is found in their cell membranes. It's changed into ergocalciferol, or vitamin D2, by ultraviolet light. This process happens naturally. In order to increase the level of vitamin D2 produced by fungi, however, supplement manufacturers irradiate the fungi.
Both vitamin D3 and Vitamin D2 can be used by the human body and both are found in supplements and fortified foods. Vitamin D3 seems to be more potent, however.
A Dietitian Talks About Food and Memory
Potential Problems With Vitamin Supplements
There are some important points to keep in mind when taking Vitamin D supplements. Vitamins are classified as either water soluble or fat soluble. Vitamin C and members of the vitamin B family are water soluble. If these nutrients become too concentrated inside the body, the excess vitamins are excreted in the urine. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. If these vitamins become too concentrated, excess amounts are stored in body fat and could be dangerous.
Another problem with supplementation is that vitamins don't act on their own in the body. They require the help of other nutrients These helper nutrients are often present in food but may be lacking in supplements.
For the reasons mentioned above, taking megadoses of vitamins isn't recommended unless prescribed by a doctor to treat a diagnosed nutrient deficiency.
Phytochemicals or Phytonutrients for Memory
Benefits of Berries, Fruits, and Vegetables
Researchers are discovering that in addition to their other benefits, plants contain beneficial compounds called phytochemicals or phytonutrients. These chemicals aren't necessary to keep us alive but have important health benefits. Some phytochemicals seem to help memory.
There is evidence that blueberries are useful for boosting memory. The beneficial phytochemicals in the berries are believed to be their anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are red, purple, or blue pigments in plants. Additional foods containing anthocyanins include other berries, cherries, dark colored grapes, plums, red apples with skin, red cabbage, beets, and red onions. They may have different varieties of anthocyanins from blueberries, but they are still healthy foods.
Foods containing quercetin may also be beneficial for memory. Quercetin is found in onions, apples, blackcurrants, many berries, apples, broccoli, cherries, and dark grapes.
Anthocyanins and quercetin are members of the flavonoid family of plant chemicals, which seems to offer many benefits for humans. It's a good idea to eat flavonoids even if we don't have memory problems.
Nutritional terms can sometimes be confusing. Flavonoids are a family of chemicals made by plants. Anthocyanins and flavonols are smaller groups within the flavonoid family. Quercetin is a type of flavonol.
Research has shown that people who regularly eat cruciferous vegetables tend to maintain their memory better as they age compared to people who don't eat the vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables belong to the family known as the Brassicaceae. Familiar vegetables in this family include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale. They contain folate, but cruciferous vegetables seem to be more beneficial for memory than other folate-containing vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables are interesting plants. In addition to folate, they contain chemicals called glucosinolates. These may reduce the risk of some types of cancer. It's definitely worth incorporating the vegetables into a diet.
Tumeric and Curcumin
Another nutrient that may be valuable for memory is curcumin, which is a chemical present in turmeric. This yellow spice is used in curry and likely deserves a regular place in the diet.
Some intriguing discoveries have been made in relation to turmeric and memory. The situation is still far from clear, however. Some discoveries have been made in lab equipment or lab animals instead of in humans, and some experiments have produced conflicting results.
Three discoveries about curcumin that may be significant with respect to memory are described below.
- In 2018, a small study reported that a specially-formulated type of curcumin improved memory in older adults with mild problems.
- The brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease contain deposits called plaques. The plaques are made of a protein called beta-amyloid (also known as amyloid-beta). In lab equipment, curcumin has broken up beta-amyloid.
- Curcumin reduces inflammation. It may be even more effective when used with vitamin D. Continuous inflammation is harmful for many body processes.
Research exploring how curcumin affects memory loss and Alzheimer's disease is continuing. Adding the spice to the diet seems like a good idea, but it probably shouldn't be used in excessive amounts.
Curcumin Absorption and Bioavailability
The subject of curcumin and its potential health benefits is related to an important topic in nutrition science. Just because we eat a nutrient doesn't necessarily mean that it will get to where it's needed in the body. First, the nutrient must be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine into the bloodstream. Secondly, it must stay intact long enough to do its job, or the active product of its metabolism must stay intact. If these requirements aren't met, the nutrient won't help us. The term "bioavailability" refers to the amount of a nutrient that is able to have an effect in the body.
Curcumin on its own has low bioavailability. Eating turmeric or curcumin with a fat (preferably a healthy oil) increases the bioavailability of curcumin. This is true for fat soluble vitamins as well. Eating curcumin with black pepper or a substance called piperine in black pepper also increases its bioavailability. Some people find that black pepper irritates their stomach, however.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and DHA
A high fat diet should be avoided, but including some fat in the diet is important. The fat that is eaten should include monounsaturated oils, such as extra virgin olive oil (unheated) and a type of polyunsaturated fat known as omega-3.
The specific omega-3 fat that has been shown to improve memory is called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. It’s found in oily fish such as sardines, wild salmon, and mackerel. DHA is an important nutrient for the developing brain in a fetus and also reduces inflammation in the body.
Plant foods don't contain DHA. They do contain other forms of omega-3 fatty acids, which can be converted into DHA. This conversion process doesn't seem to be very efficient, however. Luckily, algal supplements containing docosahexaenoic acid are now available. These could be helpful for vegans, vegetarians, or other people who don't want to eat fish.
Foods That May Harm Memory
A high fat diet and weight gain have been shown to impair memory, especially in post-menopausal women. Trans fats are thought to be especially harmful. High blood cholesterol and high blood pressure also damage memory and often accompany weight gain. Even without these additional health problems, gaining a significant amount of weight is detrimental to memory.
Excessive alcohol use also impairs memory. It interferes with short-term memories and prevents them from being converted into long-term ones. The effects of low to moderate red wine intake are less clear.
Non-Dietary Factors That May Improve Memory
Some non-dietary factors are known to improve memory. One of these is obtaining regular exercise, which has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Avoiding smoking is important, too, since smoking harms memory by decreasing blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain. Mental exercise may help our ability to remember. Research suggests that we need to challenge our brain, especially as we age. Learning new things and solving reasonably difficult puzzles are two ways to do this.
The Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle
Memory is a complex phenomenon and isn't completely understood. The Mayo Clinic article cited in the reference section below states that memory does tend to worsen as we age. The article gives some examples of what may be "normal" memory loss with aging. As the article says, the problem doesn't prevent us from living a full and productive life. It may be a good idea to consider our diet and lifestyle at this point, however.
If our ability to remember worsens despite the fact that we're eating foods shown to boost memory and are avoiding unhealthy habits, it's time to visit a doctor. A healthy lifestyle is still worthwhile, though. It has many benefits beyond the possible correction of memory problems.
There are probably many undiscovered factors that affect our ability to remember things. At the moment, the best steps to improve or preserve memory seem to be to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, get enough good-quality sleep, exercise the brain, avoid foods and habits known to cause memory loss, and seek a doctor's advice when necessary. Making sure that we regularly eat the foods and nutrients that may improve our memory, including the ones mentioned in this article, also seems like a good idea.
- Typical symptoms of a vitamin B12 or folate deficiency from the NHS (National Health Service).
- Research suggests that low vitamin D causes damage to the brain from the EurekAlert news service
- Effects of blueberries and strawberries on cognitive decline from the Annals of Neurology and the Wiley Online Library
- Effects of cruciferous vegetables on cognitive decline in women from the NIH (National Institutes of Health)
- Curcumin, Alzheimer's disease, and bioavailability from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles)
- Turmeric and beta-amyloid from the Alzheimer's Society in the UK
- Turmeric compound could boost memory and mood from Medical News Today
- DHA and adult memory from the NIH
- Trans fats and memory from UC San Diego Health
- Strategies to help prevent age-related memory loss from WebMD
- The Mayo Clinic has a useful article about deciding when to seek medical help for memory loss.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2010 Linda Crampton
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on August 22, 2012:
Thanks for the comment and the vote, pringoooals. I'm very glad that you find the advice useful!
Karina from Edinburgh on August 22, 2012:
Alicia, Thank you for very useful advice. To be honest I was looking for something like it. Sometimes it is hard for me to remember some things maybe because I'm to focused on my inner world:) It's really good to know how to keep the mind fit. Voted up!
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on June 12, 2012:
Thanks for the visit and the comment, Manoj.
Manoj Kumar sirsa from Greater Noida on June 12, 2012:
thanks for your suggestion
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 29, 2011:
Thanks a lot for the comment and the vote, adrienne2. It's so sad when memory starts to fail. I'm making sure that my family and I are eating good food and nutrients to help maintain our ability to remember, too!
Fierce Manson from Atlanta on October 29, 2011:
Alicia, Very easy to follow your style of writing here. Really enjoyed your hub on improved memory, for me it was a reminder, and brush up course to get my B12, which I have slacked up on of late. Voted up, and thank you.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 18, 2010:
I’m sorry about your mom’s disease and death, europewalker. I have an aunt that suffers from dementia. Disorders like this really do make us think about ways to protect memory.
europewalker on November 18, 2010:
Very informative hub. My mom passed away earlier this year. She Had alzheimers. Everytime I forget something, I think I am heading down that same road. I need to start eating some of the foods you mentioned.
Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 06, 2010:
Thanks for the comment, fundamentallife. I make blueberries a regular part of my diet and make sure that my father, who’s eighty three, eats them too.
fundamentallife on November 06, 2010:
I am going to get some blue berries this morning, thanks for great info.