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Five Everyday Activities That Hurt Your Memory

Turns out there are several surprising and common activities people do that make them more forgetful.

[Photo: Andrey_Popov via Shutterstock]

You can’t find your phone. You don’t remember if you answered your client’s email. And you forgot the question you wanted to ask your colleague when you bump into her in the hallway.

If you’re feeling a little forgetful lately, it might be due to something you’re doing during the day. Turns out there are several surprising and common activities people do that hurt their memory. Do you do any of these five things?

1. Late-Night Snacking

If you raid the refrigerator or pantry before you go to bed, you might be filling your stomach to the detriment of your mind. Eating at times normally reserved for sleep causes a deficiency in the hippocampus—the area of the brain that controls learning and memory—and that impacts your memory, according to a new study published in the journal eLife.

In an experiment, researchers fed mice at the time of day they would normally be sleeping. These mice were significantly less able to recall objects during memorization tests, and their long-term memory was also dramatically reduced. Eating at the time when you should be sleeping also disrupts and fragments sleep patterns, and the amount and quality of sleep are vital for the memory consolidation that happens in your brain at that time.

"Taking regular meals at the wrong time of day has far-reaching effects for learning and memory," writes co-author Dawn Loh of the UCLA Laboratory of Circadian and Sleep Medicine. "Since many people find themselves working or playing during times when they'd normally be asleep, it is important to know that this could dull some of the functions of the brain."

2. Chronic Low-Level Stress (Like Your Commute)

Stress isn’t good for your health, and it’s not good for your memory, either. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Iowa found that the stress hormone cortisol reduces synapses in the brain that cause short-term memory loss in older rats, but its effect depended on the kind of stress that was experienced.

Low levels of chronic anxiety, such as how you might feel about your daily rush-hour commute, affect the brain’s ability to recall information. On the other hand, high-anxiety situations, such as getting into an accident, reinforce the learning process because the information gets stored in the part of the brain responsible for survival.

Finding a way to reduce your stress, such as through exercise, meditation, or a breathing technique, can help improve your memory.

3. Eating Tofu

Tofu is considered a health food, but scientists from Loughborough and Oxford Universities in the U.K. found that consuming too much may increase memory loss as well as the risk of dementia, especially among older adults.

In a study conducted in Indonesia, people who ate two or more servings of tofu each day had a 20% decrease in memory function. However, researchers found that consuming tempeh, a fermented soy product made from whole soybean, is associated with better memory.

"The beneficial effect of tempeh might be related to its high levels of folate, which is known to reduce dementia risk," writes lead researcher Eef Hogervorst, a professor from Loughborough University.

4. Being Single

Research has found that being married not only makes you healthier, it improves your memory. Scientists from Orebro University in Sweden found that people living without a partner at midlife had around twice the risk of developing cognitive impairment in later life compared with people living with a partner.

In their study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, married people showed significantly better memory performances than those who were single, separated, divorced, or widowed. The rate of decline in episodic memory—the ability to recall autobiographical information, such as times, places, and emotions—was also significantly larger for singles and widows than it was for their married counterparts.

The positive relationship found between marriage and health can be extended to marriage and cognitive performance—and that means your partner has no excuse for forgetting to pick up the milk.

5. Consuming Sugar

Here’s another reason to avoid soda: It puts your mental health in danger. A study from UCLA found that a diet high in sugar can impair your memory.

What you eat affects how you think, writes study coauthor Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA: "Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information. "

If you have a sweet tooth, there is a compromise: Gomez-Pinilla advises people to swap sugary desserts for foods such as fresh berries or an occasional bar of dark chocolate that hasn't been processed with extra sweeteners.

And there’s more you can do. Adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage of fructose. If you indulge in a hot-fudge sundae, Gomez-Pinilla says foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds, or a daily DHA capsule, can counteract the damage.

"Our findings suggest that consuming DHA regularly protects the brain against fructose's harmful effects," writes Gomez-Pinilla. "It's like saving money in the bank. You want to build a reserve for your brain to tap when it requires extra fuel to fight off future diseases."

Related: How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain

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