7 simple ways to improve your memory

Health Agenda
Mental Health

7 simple ways to improve your memory

Published May 2023 | 7 min read
Expert contributors Dr Ginni Mansberg, GP; Dr Katya Numbers, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, UNSW
Words by Bonnie Bayley

Having good recall of information, objects and events isn’t down to good luck – there are lots of things you can actively do to keep your brain sharp.

Memory is so much more than just remembering where to find your keys. It shapes your identity, gives colour and detail to the events that make up your life story, and pieces together who you are as an individual.

If you want to know how to improve your memory, there are some key factors to be aware of. “One of the biggest is stress – if you’ve been stressed for long enough, your brain will start producing cortisol, a hormone which isn’t helpful for making new memories, and if you’re sleep deprived you’ll be inefficient at both pulling out memories and laying down new ones,” says Dr Ginni Mansberg, author of Save Your Brain: Simple steps and proven strategies to reduce your risk of cognitive decline – before it's too late.

Certain phases of life can also be tied to memory changes. “Ageing affects memory, because the brain has cells in it just like the rest of our bodies, which do start to die off. Women also experience hormonal changes around menopause, with a dip in oestrogen and progesterone, which may be one of the reasons they report brain fog,” explains Dr Katya Numbers, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at the University of New South Wales.

On the upside, there’s a secret weapon that could improve the way we navigate life, from ageing and baby brain, to menopause and even dementia-related issues, and that is cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is your brain's ability to improvise and find alternative ways of getting a job done. It reflects how agile your brain is.

You can start helping your brain’s agility now by doing certain things to build up your reserve for later in life. “People who have cognitive reserve built up over a lifetime – which happens with people who have formal education, are bilingual, are more physically active and more social – are less likely to be impacted by [cognitive and memory decline],” says Dr Numbers.

Interestingly, having a sharp memory and ample ‘cognitive reserve’ means you’ll be more likely to keep performing at your best. “You’ll also be more adept at forming new [neural] connections,” says Dr Numbers.

Implementing these simple yet powerful strategies to learn how to improve your memory could help keep your memory working well for years to come.

1. Practise cycling through the three memory stages

It’s useful to think of your memory as having three separate stages.

  • Encoding: where you need to focus on putting complex information together.
  • Storage: where you’re consolidating information into an actual memory.
  • Retrieval: where you’re pulling a memory out.

“The more we can practise those three steps by doing something like a challenging puzzle or learning a new language or instrument, the better,” says Dr Numbers. While a lot of the memory boosts are specific to the information being learned, Dr Numbers says there are likely to be ‘spill-over effects’ that help your memory’s overall functioning.

A simple way to flex your three memory stages is next time you learn a new fact (for example, a history fact), focus on committing it to memory, then challenge yourself to tell a friend or remember the details of it without reaching for your phone.

2. Aim for 13 minutes of meditation every day

When you think of the 1,440 minutes in every day, carving out just 13 of them for meditation doesn’t seem too big an ask – especially when you consider the pay-offs for your memory. One study found that meditation novices who did a 13-minute daily guided meditation for eight weeks enjoyed improved working memory and recognition memory, as well as enhanced attention, better mood and reduced anxiety. According to the study authors, it suggests that “even relatively short daily meditation practice can have similar behavioural effects as longer duration and higher-intensity meditation practices”.

The Insight Timer app is a great place to find quick, free guided meditations.

3. Flip your mental script

Having a positive attitude towards ageing – for instance, believing it’s possible to stay mentally sharp and keep learning new things – has payoffs in your memory’s ability to function. In a Spanish study, people with a positive perception of their own ageing had better memory performance than those with more pessimistic views.

Another study from Yale University in the US that tracked 395 people over 38 years found that those who held negative stereotypes about ageing experienced a 30% greater decline in memory performance.

If you’re feeling a bit down about getting older, Dr Numbers suggests trying the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique of challenging negative thoughts every time you notice them arise.

“CBT works on your neuroplasticity pathway, so if you’ve formed a negative connection, say between being old and becoming invisible to society, you need to prune that connection and form a new one,” she says. Every time you notice a negative thought about ageing, swap it for a positive one, like “I’m getting more confident and wise with age”.

4. Eat more purple, red and blue foods

Next time you do your grocery shopping, add more purple, red and blue foods – think plums, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries, red grapes, red cabbage and red onion – to your cart. They’re all rich sources of anthocyanins – coloured pigments with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties that have potent brain-protecting benefits.

In a recent Western Sydney University and University of Wollongong study, older adults with mild cognitive impairment who had a higher dietary anthocyanin intake recalled a greater number of words in a series of tests. The anti-inflammatory properties of purple, blue and red foods are one of their key advantages.

"If you've got inflammation throughout your body, it will send out proteins called cytokines to tame it,” explains Dr Numbers. “In the hippocampus – a part of the brain with a major role in memory and learning – there are lots of cytokine receptors, so if there’s a big burst of inflammation, it can impact brain tissue, especially in the memory regions."

5. Say ‘yes’ to invitations

Following the COVID lockdowns, and with the new working-from-home normal, we’ve all been recalibrating what socialising looks like. “If you’re one of those people who gets invited to drinks on Friday night but can’t be bothered – be bothered,” says Dr Mansberg. Or make the move and invite a friend out or over to your house for dinner.

“Getting out and talking to people is one of the best things you can do for your brain and memory, because it’s difficult: you’re in a social circumstance, you have to read people’s body language and remember different things about them.”

At the very least, she recommends texting three friends who make you smile. “Connectedness and social activity solve two problems – people who have more social interaction are less likely to get dementia, and also people who bring you joy will likely help your mental health,” she explains.

6. Use your phone mindfully

The mere presence of a smartphone – even if it’s placed face-down on a desk or stored out of sight in a pocket or bag – reduces working memory capacity, reports a University of Texas study. What’s more, while we often use our phones to record our experiences, research shows doing this actually affects our ability to remember events. “We punctuate different learning experiences with things like a change of location, sights and smells, which put little encoding flags on our memories,” says Dr Numbers. “If you do everything through a phone, you’re chipping away at the core sensory components that help you retrieve an experience later on.”

The trick is to use your phone mindfully – if you’re at an event you want to savour, limit yourself to a few nice snaps, then put your phone away and tune in with all your senses to the experience to help you recall it later on.

7. Go to bed earlier

It’s tempting to stay up late watching just one more episode of your favourite show, or scrolling through social media, especially if you want to decompress after a long day. However, having an earlier night is a smart brain move.

According to Dr Mansberg, the first third of the night is when our deepest sleep phase, known as N3, stage 3 sleep or slow-wave sleep, occurs. This phase is important for memory, including the consolidation of long-term memories. Dr Mansberg says N3 sleep accounts for only 10 to 20% of our total sleep time, so we don’t want to short-change ourselves. Her advice? Make sure you’re asleep well before midnight.

Help is here for a better night’s sleep

Thanks to our partnership with Sleepfit Solutions, eligible HCF members* can get a 20% discount on a 12-month subscription to the Sleepfit app, which is designed to improve sleep and overall wellbeing.

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* Eligible HCF members with hospital or extras cover. Excludes Overseas Visitors Health Cover. The cost is $23.90 for 12 months for HCF members (RRP is $29.90).

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