A woman solving a sudoku, which has been shown to improve memory.

How to Improve Working Memory and Focus: Tips and Resources for Individuals Looking to Improve Cognitive Performance

Memory enables humans to carry out their daily routines. Remembering significant details, such as the directions to one’s place of work, what bills need to be paid and when, and names and events, is key to a healthy and fulfilling life.

Those who experience issues with memory can have trouble navigating everyday existence. For example, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, children can face learning challenges if they struggle with working, short-term and long-term memory. Working memory refers to immediately remembering and using memory during a particular action or activity, such as remembering the steps for solving long division math problems. Short-term memory refers to recent memories, such as remembering what clothes you wore yesterday or what you had for breakfast. Long-term memory is the recollection of events and information from a period further in the past, such as remembering your wedding anniversary or your elementary school’s name.

The National Institute on Aging reports that conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia can severely hinder an older person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks and even maintain their own identity. For those who aren’t facing serious memory or mental health conditions, even slight declines in the ability to remember can have a large impact on their general well-being.

This does not mean that there aren’t steps and resources that individuals can take to improve their current working memory and maintain it as they age. From eating the right foods and exercising regularly to doing mental activities, improving one’s memory is achievable and potentially enjoyable.

How to Improve Working Memory

In the British Medical Journal, Dr. Gary Small of UCLA’s Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior writes, “As doctors and scientists have focused more attention on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, patients are expressing greater concern about their common, age-related memory changes.” He continues: “About 40% of people aged 65 or older have age-associated memory impairment — in the United States, about 16 million people.”

Here are some tips that can help improve working memory.

Eat Fruits and Vegetables

Mental health is directly linked to physical health. What a person puts into their body directly affects how they think and feel, and certain foods can help improve memory.

Harvard Health Publishing suggests that maintaining a healthy diet that includes green, leafy vegetables (e.g., kale, spinach and broccoli) and fatty fish (e.g., salmon and light tuna), as well as berries, walnuts, tea and coffee, can help to improve memory. Healthline also recommends pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, oranges and eggs as foods that can improve and maintain memory.

“As the control center of your body, it’s in charge of keeping your heart beating and lungs breathing and allowing you to move, feel and think,” registered dietitian Kerri-Ann Jennings writes for Healthline. “That’s why it’s a good idea to keep your brain in peak working condition.”

Stay Mentally Fit

Individuals can adopt several routines, schedules, behaviors and patterns to keep themselves mentally fit.

Writing for The Guardian, Dr. Small reviews several mind games that can help keep people mentally fit. For example, they can rate their memory baseline, which entails writing down 10 words, spending time on other tasks and then later trying to write down as many of those 10 words as they can remember. Other mind games include creating visual images and stories that link together pieces of information a person wants to remember, which can help them boost memory recall.

Healthline also reviews several “brain games” that can help people stay mentally fit, including recreational activities such as jigsaw puzzles, card games, listening to and playing music, and learning new skills.

Relax and Meditate

Improving memory doesn’t have to take strenuous effort. In fact, simple relaxation can help a person achieve stronger cognitive and memory function. According to a BBC Future article, memory studies have found that small breaks and rests between work and learning periods are beneficial in later memory recall.

Meditation techniques can also help improve memory. According to an article detailing multiple studies on mindfulness’s effects on episodic memory published in PLOS One, “Training in mindfulness, classically described as a receptive attentiveness to present events and experiences, has been shown to improve attention and working memory.” Additionally, an article published in The Conversation explains that brief periods of meditation can help to improve a person’s working memory.

Improve Sleep Habits

Similar to the cognitive benefits provided by relaxation, sleep has also proved to be effective in boosting memory function. As a Men’s Journal article describing multiple academic and research studies notes, “[Sleep] enhances our memories, while wakefulness causes them to decay. Even small disruptions in sleep can have an impact on the quality of memories we store, and that includes motor skills.”

Maintain an Exercise Regimen

Just as the foods that one ingests can have an impact on physical and mental health, so does exercise and aerobic activity. Discussing a study from the University of British Columbia, Harvard Health Publishing notes, “Regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.”

Suggested exercises include walking briskly for one hour twice a week; slightly more intense activities, such as swimming, tennis and dancing; and household activities, such as cleaning the house or raking leaves in the backyard.

Maintain Strong Social Activity

Discussing the benefits of social activity on brain function, Psychology Today writer Angela K. Troyer, PhD, explains, “People who connect with others generally perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive skills. And, in the long run, people with active social lives are less likely to develop dementia than those who are more socially isolated.”

To stay social, Troyer recommends catching up with friends and family through video chats; signing up for classes at community centers and colleges; participating in neighborhood groups and activities; and partaking in daily activities, both routine and recreational, with friends and acquaintances.

How to Improve Cognitive Performance

In addition to improving one’s memory, individuals can take steps to improve cognitive function, which is the collection of mental abilities and actions a person is able to perform, such as focusing on a new task, learning new information and solving problems. These steps include activities that can be performed in stationary settings, as well as more physically engaging acts.

Solve Sudoku and Other Puzzles

Sudoku is a type of numbers puzzle that is both entertaining and potentially beneficial to cognitive function. Although scientists and researchers debate the effectiveness of puzzles on brain performance, neurosurgeon Adam Lipson says, “They clearly don’t hurt, and a lot of people do engage in them, and we see a lot of subjective reports that they do in fact help,” as noted in an article from NBC News.

Other types of puzzles can be beneficial to boosting cognitive performance. A study published in Trials describes jigsaw puzzles as a “low-cost, intrinsically motivating, cognitive leisure activity, which can be executed alone or with others and without the need to operate a digital device.” The study notes, “Positive results would indicate a highly feasible cognitive intervention to improve visuospatial cognition and everyday functioning and psychological outcomes in [individuals over 50].”

Actively Read and Write

Reading and writing can help to improve memory and cognitive performance. According to a Fast Company article, taking notes by hand, rather than through digital means, can help to improve memory. The article also notes that absorbing information through analog means, such as paper books, seems to be more beneficial for memory retention and therefore productivity.

Additionally, reading may also help to make individuals more socially aware. According to a Psychology Today article, the act can be beneficial in helping to “understand empathy, [and] the ability to interpret the mental states, feelings and emotions of others, when shown photographs of faces in different emotional states.”

Yoga and Tai Chi

Healthline explains that practicing yoga can help remove many of the barriers that impair mental health and activity. Specifically, yoga has been found to be helpful in improving brain function, according to a Science Daily press release about a research report.

In a review of studies published in Clinical Interventions in Aging, the martial art tai chi was also shown to “improve short-term cognitive function in the elderly at the onset of dementia.” A Harvard Health Publishing article also states that, based on an analysis of tai chi and cognition, the martial art “appears to improve executive function — the ability to multitask, manage time and make decisions — in people without any cognitive decline.”

Explore New Experiences

Based on insights provided by interviews with travel and mental health experts, Forbes writer Noma Nazish explains how travel can make a person more mentally resilient: “Facing difficulties in an unfamiliar environment, among new people, forces you to learn and adapt to a life that’s out of your comfort zone. This makes you more flexible, patient and emotionally strong.”

A Harvard Health Publishing article also notes the cognitive benefits of engaging in new activities, including volunteering, joining a book club or taking classes in subjects such as music and gardening.

Aerobic Activities

“Much mental ill health is characterized by a cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating unhelpful behaviors, restricts our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to see new solutions or to change,” a Psychology Today article explains. “It is therefore plausible that exercise leads to better mental health in general, through its effects on systems that increase the capacity for mental flexibility.

Frontiers in Psychology highlights the positive effects of exercise on mental health, as a study found that physical exercise “determines positive biological and psychological effects that affect the brain and the cognitive functioning and promote a condition of well-being.

Stay Mentally Fit for Life

A number of strategies can help improve both memory and cognitive function. Implementing a combination of these tools can lead to stronger mental health, improved memory and a more fulfilling life.