Memory is a fickle thing. For example, you may remember something significant that happened a decade ago, but not what you had for dinner last Tuesday. Or maybe you are simply forgetful with the little things, like misplacing your keys, reading texts but forgetting to respond, or losing track of appointments.
Everyone forgets things every now and then, but if you are often forgetful – with important things just out of grasp in your mind or words right on the tip of your tongue – it can feel debilitating and beyond frustrating.
Although some memory loss and forgetfulness is normal with ageing, according to the National Institute on Ageing, some things can exacerbate your forgetfulness no matter your age.
“There are a number of common habits that can make us more forgetful,” says Michele Goldman, a psychologist and media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
Below, experts explain several things you may not realise you’re doing that affect your memory. If you’ve been feeling more forgetful lately, then keep reading to see if you’ve developed any of these habits.
Not getting enough sleep
Sleep has many health benefits, including improving memory. Not sleeping enough can affect your ability to learn new things by up to 40%, and it can affect the hippocampus part of your brain, which is responsible for making new memories.
“Sleep allows our brains to restore,” Goldman says. “Certain stages of sleep, including REM sleep, are specifically associated with memory consolidation or the process of newly learned information being transformed into long-term memory.”
The Sleep Foundation recommends adults get about seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night. Not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep can make us more forgetful because “the new information we learn is not being stored in our long-term memory and is more likely to be forgotten or lost,” Goldman says.
Julia Kogan, a health psychologist in Florida and creator of the Master Stress Method, says sleep is related to attention and focus – two things that are critical when it comes to memory.
“If we are skipping on sleep, we are less likely to be attentive, focused and energetic,” she says. “If we are lacking attention, then we are unlikely to be able to retain information well. Therefore, those who regularly skip sleep are more likely to be forgetful since the attention parts of their brain, especially in the prefrontal cortex, are not going to be as sharp.”
Kogan said forgetfulness is often “an attention problem.” She explained that being attentive and focused is an important part of remembering information.
“If we did not fully pay attention, are distracted, or we are not in a mental state to retain information, then we are not going to fully attend to the information, resulting in what looks like forgetfulness,” Kogan adds.
Distraction can also happen when you multitask. “Working on various tasks at the same time can actually lead to less productivity and more forgetfulness,” Kogan says.
She recommends focusing on one thing at a time. One way to do this is by time-blocking at work by splitting tasks into manageable activities with small breaks.
“This might look like 45 minutes of a specific task with no interruptions or other tasks, followed by a 5-to-10-minute break,” Kogan says.
Not exercising or moving your body
“Exercise is important for your overall health, including your memory,” says Valentina Dragomir, a psychotherapist and founder of PsihoSensus Therapy and PsihoSensus Academy. “Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and helps to protect brain cells. Also, there is [research] that shows sedentary habits are linked to thinning in some brain regions that are important for memory.”
“Regular exercise – not necessarily strenuous exercise – helps reduce the risk of a number of common illnesses that are linked to memory loss, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes to name a few,” Goldman added.
Taking certain medications
Have you recently started taking a new medication? This could be affecting your memory, too.
“Medicines like antidepressants, allergy medications, blood pressure stabilisers, and more can affect memory due to their sedative properties,” says Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist, teaching faculty member at Columbia University, and founder and director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, P.C.
Other medications that can make you more forgetful include benzodiazepines, cholesterol-lowering drugs, antiepileptic agents, narcotic painkillers, antihypertensive drugs, incontinence medications, antihistamines and more.
“Some medications only impair your memory when you are taking them, and others can have more long-lasting effects,” she notes. Talking to your doctor and finding the best medication for you and your lifestyle will help.
“Alcohol can damage brain cells and lead to memory problems,” Dragomir says. “According to research, long-term drinking causes the brain to decrease in size.”
Kogan says those with an alcohol use disorder or those who binge drink are more likely to experience short- and long-term memory loss.
“When drinking, alcohol impacts the hippocampus, which is largely responsible for learning and memory,” Kogan explained. “Alcohol can impact how the nerves in the hippocampus communicate, leading to forgetfulness.”
She added, “People who drink heavily tend to be deficient in certain vitamins and other nutrients, which can also lead to forgetfulness.”
Smoking is another habit to kick if you want to improve your memory. “Smoking damages brain cells and stops new ones forming in the hippocampus, which leads to forgetfulness,” Dragomir says.
She also cites a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that shows “chronic exposure to nicotine might impair brain mechanisms related to learning and memory.”
“Smoking can impair lung and heart function, which slows oxygen transport to the brain,” Hafeez adds. “Less oxygen in your brain can lead to less brain function, causing memory loss.”
The THC in marijuana may also impact learning and memory.
“Marijuana has been shown to produce short-term issues with working memory specifically, as well as attention,” Kogan said. The problem is worse the more you smoke. “In heavy users, it has been shown that marijuana can cause issues with learning and memory for weeks after cannabis consumption.”
Not eating certain foods
Food can impact our brain as well. “What we ingest impacts how we feel physically, mentally and emotionally,” Goldman says. “A diet that is lacking balance can impact the body in a negative way.”
If you are looking for foods to boost brain function, Harvard Medical School suggests opting for leafy vegetables, fatty fish, berries, tea and coffee, and walnuts. Hafeez recommends also “consuming a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods.” These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and healthy fats, among others.
Organisation is important when it comes to memory.
“We are much more likely to forget things when our external environment is in disarray,” Goldman says. “A chaotic, cluttered, or disorganised environment works for some, but not for most individuals.”
She recommends finding a system that works for you. “Keep a notebook, create a schedule, get a calendar – whatever the system, be consistent and follow through.”
Part of being organised is finding a placed for everything, including those often-misplaced keys. “Set specific places for items to decrease the chance you will lose them; for example, the keys go on a hook by the door, they are not placed down absentmindedly when we walk in and drop our belongings,” Goldman adds.
Having an untreated mental health issue
“Both anxiety and depression can impair concentration, making it more difficult to attend to small details,” Goldman says. “It can be challenging to remain organized; we might be easily overwhelmed and lack focus.”
Trauma survivors in particular “tend to have impaired memory,” according to Goldman. “The nervous system is in overdrive trying to ensure safety and protection, which means non-life-threatening details are more likely to be forgotten.”
“Because stress, anxiety, and depression can impact attention, learning, and memory, it is very important to address these concerns in order to sharpen our memory,” Kogan adds. “Those struggling with anxiety and depression should seek evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy.”
Not sharpening your mind
One of the best things you can do to combat forgetfulness is to stimulate your brain. “Keeping your brain active by learning new things, playing games, reading, or other stimulating activities is a way to keep the ‘muscles’ of your brain in shape,” Goldman says.
The American Psychological Association recommends taking “mental snapshots” of things in life, like where you parked, to pull up in your brain when you forget. It also suggests training your brain through mnemonic devices and vanishing cues or using technology to help you remember things.
“Think of your brain and memory as something that must be used and exercised like any other part of the body or it will atrophy,” Hafeez says.
When to see a doctor for memory issues
Call your health care provider if your forgetfulness doesn’t improve after these changes or if you have these symptoms:
Asking the same questions over and over again.
Getting lost in places you know well.
Having trouble following recipes or directions.
Becoming confused about time, people and places.
Not taking care of oneself, eating poorly, not bathing or behaving unsafely.
Being forgetful can be annoying, but it doesn’t have to define your life. With a few lifestyle changes and some mental exercises, you can improve your memory in no time.