Stay sharp: 3 ways to protect your memory

Key points

  • Amyloid plaques (characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease) can build up in the brain 15-20 years before we have any symptoms.
  • Risky behaviors such as substance abuse and head injuries can negatively affect short- and long-term memory.
  • Healthy habits such as sleep, physical activity, and a nutritional diet can help prevent memory loss down the road.

Nearly 60 percent of students polled in a recent CampusWell survey said they’ve known someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia—not surprising, considering the increasing rates of the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 13 million Americans could have Alzheimer’s by 2050.

There’s no cure (at least, not yet), but the good news is prevention is powerful. “As we learn more about the brain and specifically Alzheimer’s disease, we know that these amyloid proteins can build up 15 to 20 years before we have symptoms,” says Dr. Sharon Sha, clinical associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders in California. Amyloid proteins are abnormal proteins that can build up in tissues and organs. In the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, clusters of amyloid proteins collect between neurons to form “plaques” that disrupt cell function. “If we can delay the onset of the buildup that could be happening in our 20s or 30s by exercising and [practicing] healthy habits, that potentially could prevent or delay the onset of these diseases.”

“One thing I do for my memory is frequently work on crossword puzzles,” says Marianna T., a first-year student at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. “I also try to stay very busy so that my mind is always engaged in some intellectual or work-related pursuit.”

3 things to look out for that could damage your memory

Improving your memory isn’t just about boosting your cognitive skills—it’s about protecting what you already have. Here’s what you should know about the biggest factors that can impact your memory.

Sleep is powerful for keeping your memory in good shape. Skimping on sleep—especially when it becomes chronic—is like kryptonite for your cognitive capabilities. “If you don’t get the right amount or quality of sleep, then the next day not only are you groggy, but your attention and concentration is impaired so that you can’t even form those short-term memories,” says Dr. Sha. In other words, when you’re sleep-deprived, the lecture material is more likely to go in one ear and out the other, and the stuff from class that does make it into your brain is less likely to stick around for the test.

Alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes can all chip away at your cognitive function.


Alcohol can cause blatant memory loss in the form of blackouts. The effects on your brain, however, aren’t just confined to that particular night out. Research shows that regular heavy drinkers experience long-term memory loss, according to the American Addiction Centers. Why? Heavy, long-term alcohol abuse actually shrinks your brain, reducing the amount of gray matter over time. The good news? Research also shows that after one year of abstinence, recovering alcoholics showed improvements in cognitive abilities, working memory, and brain size.


Marijuana is known for producing a mind fog, and some studies show that regular use may have a negative impact on memory. However, regular marijuana users may be able to reverse these effects by stopping. In one 2018 study, when researchers asked participants between the ages of 16 and 25 who regularly smoked marijuana to quit for a month, they found that after just one week of not smoking the participants performed better on a memory test—particularly when asked to remember lists of words.


Smoking cigarettes is also directly linked to memory problems. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, “there is strong evidence that smoking can increase your risk of dementia.” Smoking can cause vascular problems and introduces toxins into your brain—both risk factors for developing serious memory problems down the road.

“Protect your head,” says Tiffany K., a fifth-year student at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “Concussions can hinder cognitive development and ability.” To lower your risk of concussions, always wear your seatbelt in the car and a helmet while riding bikes, motorcycles, scooters, skateboards, etc. and while playing contact sports. “We know concussions can increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but we really don’t know how many or how forceful they have to be to cause a detrimental effect,” says Dr. Sha. “We [need to] be proactive about protecting our brain.”

Regular physical activity and a healthy diet can help prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia

scientists piecing together puzzle head | prevent memory loss

A significant body of research shows that conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol are linked to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. To lower your risk of these conditions (and therefore Alzheimer’s), aim to get at least 30 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity per day or on most days and eat a heart-healthy diet. Heart-healthy diets include lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, and limited amounts of sodium, sugar, and red meat.