Improving your memory - fact and fiction

Can listening to Mozart help you remember things? How much of your brain do you use? We give you the facts and put the memory myths to bed.

The facts

1. Smoking is bad for your memory

Smoking reduces your blood circulation and can make long-term changes to your memory. A study in 2015 by Edinburgh and McGill Universities found smokers had a thinner cortex - the layer of the brain responsible for memory and language.

2. Drinking too much is bad for your memory

It's not just the morning after that you'll feel the effects - prolonged heavy drinking has a long-term impact on your memory. Alcohol is thought to interfere with blood flow to the brain, and studies have shown excessive drinking can damage nerve cells affecting the brain's cognitive functions.

3. Poor sleep is bad for your memory

Sleep triggers changes in the brain that lay down memories and links new memories to old ones. A study by Harvard Medical School concluded that getting an 'average' amount of sleep, seven hours per day, may help maintain memory in later life.

4. Exercise is good for your memory

Aerobic exercise increases blood flow and helps to grow neurons, the building blocks of brain activity. It helps to bring nourishment to the brain and can increase the area in the brain devoted to learning and verbal memory.

5. Learning new things is good for your memory

Learning new things that push you out of your mental comfort zone and which continue to be difficult is good for your memory. Learning a language, musical instrument or taking up a new hobby are all good for cognitive function, but to get the benefit you must keep pushing yourself to the next level.

The myths

Myth 1: We only use 10% of our brains

Wrong! We use almost every part of the brain throughout the day. Research has yet to find a region of the brain that doesn't serve a purpose.

Myth 2: Memory fades gradually

Most people believe that you forget things gradually, but research shows that most forgetting takes place immediately after an event.

Myth 3: Listening to Mozart makes you smarter

Remember all those Baby Mozart tapes back in the 90s? Everyone thought that listening to classical music helped with cognitive function. Sadly it's not that easy - there's no evidence that listening to Mozart - or any classical music - actually makes you smarter or helps your memory.

Myth 4: Brain training helps your memory

Brain games will make you better at the games in question, but according to a BBC study, they won't improve your memory in the long term. To boost your memory, keep learning new things and challenging yourself.

Myth 5: Memory is like a video playback

It's more complicated (and messy) than that. Research suggests we compress memories so as to remember only the necessary details and fill in the blanks when it's time to remember them.


Patricia Carswell is a freelance journalist and award-winning blogger specialising in health and fitness. She has written for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, Times Online, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, Metro and a wide variety of national magazines and websites. She blogs at www.sportyoverforty.com  and www.girlontheriver.com and has a particular interest in fitness for the over-40s.