What’s your earliest memory?
For most people, it’s probably some fuzzy recollection from childhood — maybe around age three or four.
Your memories are an essential part of who you are. Your memories contain every lesson you’ve ever learned, every person you’ve met, and everything you’ve ever enjoyed, hated or loved. Although our memories are oftentimes some of our most important treasures, people unknowingly do things every single day to erase them.
Here are some common behaviors, some of which you probably do daily, that are damaging your memories. The good news is that there are easy ways to avoid them too.
Eating Junk Food
It’s tempting to jump on the junk food bandwagon anytime the fridge is empty or you don’t feel like cooking., but by filling up on junk or fast food, you can damage your memory. There are two primary ways eating junk food harms your brain. First, the lack of certain vitamins in your food can impair your memory and cognitive abilities. Research has determined that B6, for example, can improve cognitive function and the lack of it has a detrimental effect on cognition and memory.
The second diet-related behavior that hurts your memory is indulging in a high-fat diet. Diets high in fat can slow brain function, making it more difficult for you to maintain your memories.
This is probably one of the easiest memory damaging behaviors to change — simply make an effort to eat better. A brain healthy diet would include more lean protein, whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Don’t restrict yourself — denying yourself your favorite foods, even if they’re fatty or unhealthy, often leads to diet failure. Instead, try to make healthy choices overall and enjoy your indulgences in moderation.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Many people drink alcohol as a way to numb themselves to the problems and stresses of their lives or to simply make themselves more relaxed in social situations. Unfortunately, including a powerful depressant like alcohol in your diet can slow your brain function and increase your risk of brain damage over time.
One study completed by the University of Kentucky found that the effects of heavy alcohol use on the brain are strikingly similar to the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease — it may even be a risk factor for the development of the condition later in life.
Enjoying your favorite adult beverage is best in moderation to prevent long-term damage to your brain.
Not Sleeping Enough
According to the CDC, one out of every three adults isn’t getting enough sleep. While insufficient sleep is dangerous to your health and brain in many ways, it can also cause memory damage. Not getting at least seven hours of sleep a night can prevent your brain from regenerating the cells it needs to create and secure new memories in your brain.
A lack of sleep directly relates to short-term memory problems. You want to try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night to prevent these problems.
Smoking is the cause of a host of health problems, from asthma and COPD to cancer of the lungs, mouth, and throat. It also makes it more difficult for oxygen to flow to the brain. While a person might not see immediate memory problems, the lack of oxygen to the brain correlates with cognitive decline in middle-age.
A study monitored patients between the ages of 43 and 53 and found that people who smoked more than 20 cigarettes a day experienced poorer verbal memory and slow visual search speeds when compared to non-smokers of the same age.
Quitting smoking is not easy because your brain gets addicted to it, but if you would like to preserve your memory and ditch the cigarettes, there are plenty of resources to help you get started.
Ignoring Mental Health Issues
Mental health is a touchy subject, primarily due to the negative stigma that surrounds the condition. In spite of this, it’s still an important subject to talk about, especially when you consider the fact that mental health disorders, diagnosed or undiagnosed, can cause problems with memory as well. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions have been linked to memory loss.
It is also important to consider the fact that memory loss on its own could point to a larger mental health disorder or behavioral problems that need to be addressed by a professional. If you find yourself experiencing memory loss, consider speaking with a doctor to make sure that a mental health issue isn’t the cause.
For many people, unfortunately, stress is a normal part of life. You stress about work, about family, or about that upcoming date. Every time you experience stress, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Often called the stress hormone, cortisol has been tied to everything from having difficulty losing weight to memory loss and cognition problems. Over time, chronic stress can actually cause brain damage.
Reducing the stress in your life isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but if your memory is hanging in the balance it becomes essential to take steps to reduce the stresses in your life. Find out more about breaking the cycle of stress here.
Exercise is healthy for you — we’ve all probably had this idea ingrained in our heads since grade school. In addition to it being good for your body, exercise is essential for your brain to function optimally. In terms of memory, studies have found that exercise helps to increase blood flow to the brain which can in turn increase brain health and improve memory and cognition.
Exercising also releases endorphins into your body, which can help to improve your mood and mental health, and has even been used in conjunction with medication and therapy to treat depression and other mental illnesses.
Not Getting Enough Vitamin D
These days, a lot of us cover up, slather on the sunscreen or just stay indoors to avoid the sun and it’s harsh UV rays, but getting out into the sun is essential for your overall health and brain health.
Exposing your skin to sunlight helps the body produce Vitamin D. A Vitamin D deficiency can cause long-term cognitive decline and memory damage. Individuals with a consistent vitamin D deficiency throughout their life are up to 4 times more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease as they age.
A lack of Vitamin D and sunlight is also associated with a form of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD which affects people mostly in northern climates during winter months.
The amount of time in the sun you need depends on your skin tone. For a person with fair skin, just 10 minutes in the sun at midday is enough to generate many times your daily requirement of Vitamin D. Darker skinned individuals can often meet their vitamin D needs in 15-20 minutes of sun exposure a day. It is best to consult a healthcare professional to determine your individual requirements
Protect Your Memory Now
Whether you have a few of these habits or you include all of these behaviors in your daily life, each one could potentially damage your memory. Take the time to change your lifestyle to protect your memories.
When you get older, you may reach a point when your memories are the most valuable thing you have, and you’ll want to be able to remember that first kiss, that trip overseas, or your grandkids adorable smile.
That might not be possible if you don’t start taking care of your memory now.
Kayla Matthews writes about wellness, productivity and stress in the modern world for websites like MakeUseOf, BioMed Central, and The Huffington Post. To read more posts from Kayla, subscribe to her blog, Productivity Theory.