Are There Really Vitamins for Memory?
Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten the reason why? Many experience this or other small lapses in memory from time to time. You might wonder if it’s normal or if there are effective vitamins for memory. Here we’ll discuss five memory-strengthening nutrients to look for in brain supplements, but first let’s start by better understanding this intricate process.
What is Memory?
Memory is the process through which the brain takes in information from the environment, processes it, stores it, and recalls it. An important aspect of cognitive function, your memory is needed to learn, make decisions, as well as other important cognitive tasks. It’s a process that is constantly running in the background, allowing you to evaluate and make sense of your experiences in the world around you. In your daily life, memory is essential for both simple and complex tasks, like remembering where you put your keys, using language, learning, and processing information. Think for a moment about all the different ways you use memory when you’re enjoying your favorite book – the language, the plot, the settings, the characters.
Since you rely on memory in many ways, it’s a very intricate process comprised of multiple subtypes. Working memory is used to store information for only a short time (e.g., keeping numbers in mind to add up a sum in your head). Episodic memory stores information about past events (both recent and distant). Semantic memory is used to remember facts or meanings of words. And prospective memory is used to remember things for the future, like the time of an upcoming meeting.
As part of brain function, memory is just one domain of cognition. Other domains include sensation, perception, motor skills, attention, executive functioning, processing speed, and language. However, of all cognitive domains, memory is arguably the most complex and far-reaching.1
Memory Loss: Normal or Not?
With memory being such an important part of cognitive function, it makes sense that memory loss is an early sign of cognitive impairment. Closely related to memory loss is “brain fog,” which is often considered an indicator of brain function. For many, memory and related brain function can decline with age. It can be a normal part of aging, but how can you tell when it’s not? Normal aging is reflected by some slowing in brain functions, while retaining the ability to think and process. For example, normal aging can look like misplacing keys or forgetting why you just walked into a room. Abnormal cognitive decline is different in that it involves difficulty planning and organizing. Some examples of mild cognitive impairment include feeling overwhelmed with complex tasks like planning, or missing appointments. In a more advanced stage, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, one might forget the names of loved ones or have difficulty with daily activities like getting dressed. For more information on distinguishing between normal and abnormal memory loss, follow this link to a discussion with Jessie Hillock, Certified Dementia Practitioner, Licensed Speech Language Pathologist, and Family Coach.
What’s happening when memory is harder to access? The hippocampus, which is a region of the brain that’s involved in forming and retrieving memories, often deteriorates with age. Multiple things can predispose you to memory loss, including nutrient deficiencies, poor blood sugar control (e.g., diabetes or insulin resistance), traumatic brain injury, depression, and cardiovascular disease. High cortisol levels from stress, poor sleep, etc., are also thought to contribute to lower hippocampal volume. Each of these factors can increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. When the body doesn’t have the resources it needs to neutralize free radicals or minimize inflammatory processes (think antioxidants), it can impact the landscape and function of the especially vulnerable brain. 2
Nutrients for Brain Health
Nutrition is deeply linked to cognition. If you’re considering vitamins for memory, here are five superhero nutrients getting a lot of research attention lately because of their likely effect on memory.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Anti-inflammatory and neuro-structural properties support learning and memory
Do you remember the connection between hippocampal size and memory? Well, omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), are powerfully important in maintaining the structure of the brain, including hippocampal volume.3 Research has shown that these fats have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects on brain tissue, are neuroprotective, and are vital structural components of the cell membrane of neurons. From early fetal development to learning and memory through adulthood, omega-3 intake is crucial. With age, the amounts of these essential fats in the brain can decline which is associated with memory loss, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s. Supplementation has been shown to support learning and memory in mid-age and older adults without dementia or Alzheimer’s.3 It has also been associated with reduced risk of neurodegenerative disease onset. It’s not completely clear how omega-3 fats improve brain function, including working memory. Some evidence points to structural maintenance and increased hippocampal volume in those with higher omega-3 index levels.3
Antioxidant neuron protection supports memory and lowers risk of cognitive decline
Quercetin is just one member of the large family of flavonols, which are rich sources of protective antioxidants found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Antioxidants provide important effects in all body systems, and the brain is no exception. Neuronal protection from inflammation and oxidation is essential for long-term cognitive function, memory included. Quercetin specifically has been shown to protect neurons from oxidative damage, and to prevent amyloid beta proteins from aggregating (one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease). Quercetin supplementation has been shown to improve learning and memory, likely due to its ability to improve energy metabolism in cells and shield neurons against oxidation. Flavonol intake in general has recently been associated with slower rates of age-related cognitive decline, with quercetin intake being one of the shining stars.4,5
Neuroprotective immune regulator protects against memory loss and depression
The sunshine vitamin is made when our skin is exposed to the sun and is found in a limited number of foods like salmon, liver and egg yolks. Sufficient intake can help ward off depressive symptoms and memory loss. Research studying vitamin D levels and cognitive decline showed that higher vitamin D levels were associated with increased protection of memory and cognitive function.6 Recently published research by NeuroReserve advisor, Dr. Thomas Holland, highlighted the connection between vitamin D3 concentrations in the brain with a reduced risk for cognitive decline. Those with higher vitamin D3 levels in the brain had better working and episodic memory than those with lower concentrations. In fact, the study showed higher brain D3 correlated with 25%-33% reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia, illustrating the important roles vitamin D3 plays within the brain.7
Neuroplasticity promoter required for learning and memory
The relaxing mineral, magnesium, is required in over 300 processes in the body, including protein synthesis, vascular health, and maintenance of bone health. For the brain, sufficient magnesium intake is required for learning and memory. Importantly, this mineral has been shown to play a role in neuroplasticity. This refers to the ability of neural pathways to rewire themselves, a process at the heart of learning and memory. It also regulates excitatory neurotransmitters, providing protection against neuronal damage and cell death. Supplementing magnesium can increase its levels in the brain, which appears to improve learning ability as well as short- and long-term memory.8,9 In addition to its direct roles in neuronal function, magnesium also helps to relax blood vessels. This allows increased blood flow to the brain and improved vascular function. Vascular dysfunction in the brain is one contributor to dementia and memory loss. So magnesium’s unique ability to support vascular and neuronal function may suggest this mineral plays multiple roles in supporting brain health.10
Structural maintenance and anti-inflammatory properties for memory and cognition
Vitamin B12 is another micronutrient to keep in mind for keeping memory strong. Low B12 is especially common in older adults due to lower intake and impaired absorption. Deficiency can lead to demyelination of neurons which hinders function and leads to neuropathy and memory loss. Moreover, low B12 causes elevated inflammatory markers like homocysteine, which is damaging to brain cells. Also, there’s evidence that B12 plays a role in maintaining the structure of the hippocampus. This may be why those with higher B12 status score better on memory testing than those with low B12 status.11 In fact, even without deficiency, low-normal B12 status is associated with lower memory scores and poorer cognitive performance. Luckily, this can be a reversible and preventable cause of memory loss.12
Key Points to Remember
These memorable nutrients can help safeguard against memory loss, but there are others that can benefit brain health as well. The best way to get all the nutrients you need to keep your brain healthy and memory sharp is through a colorful, nutrient-dense diet. A Mediterranean or MIND dietary pattern is ideal for getting the full spectrum of healthy brain vitamins. If your diet sometimes falls short, consider supplementing for brain health to meet your nutrient needs for a strong memory. The nutrients discussed here, and more, can be found in evidence-supported forms and doses in RELEVATE. It’s been designed to complement your diet by filling in the gaps of memory protective nutrients. While memory changes are a normal part of aging, you can help to keep it strong with memory supplements that contain the above nutrients.
RELEVATE helps people achieve the nutritional profile of the MIND diet, which has 17 well-researched nutrients to support long-term brain health. The dosages of RELEVATE’s ingredients are based on those consumed in brain-healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet and MIND diet. They fill in the gaps between the ideal intakes of nutrients for brain health and the standard American diet. That means stronger memory, sharper thinking, and better brain function overall. Learn more and shop RELEVATE here.
- Harvey, P. D. Domains of cognition and their assessment. Dialogues Clin. Neurosci. 21, 227 (2019).
- Fotuhi, M., Do, D. & Jack, C. Modifiable factors that alter the size of the hippocampus with ageing. Nat. Rev. Neurol. 8, 189–202 (2012).
- Satizabal, C. L. et al. Association of Red Blood Cell Omega-3 Fatty Acids With MRI Markers and Cognitive Function in Midlife: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology 99, e2572 (2022).
- Holland, T. M. et al. Association of Dietary Intake of Flavonols With Changes in Global Cognition and Several Cognitive Abilities. Neurology 100, e694–e702 (2023).
- Khan, H., Ullah, H., Aschner, M., Cheang, W. S. & Akkol, E. K. Neuroprotective Effects of Quercetin in Alzheimer’s Disease. Biomolecules 10, (2020).
- Miller, J. W. et al. Vitamin D Status and Rates of Cognitive Decline in a Multiethnic Cohort of Older Adults. JAMA Neurol. 72, 1295–1303 (2015).
- Shea, M. K. et al. Brain vitamin D forms, cognitive decline, and neuropathology in community-dwelling older adults. Alzheimer’s Dement. (2022) doi:10.1002/ALZ.12836.
- Slutsky, I. et al. Enhancement of Learning and Memory by Elevating Brain Magnesium. Neuron 65, 165–177 (2010).
- Slutsky, I., Sadeghpour, S., Li, B. & Liu, G. Enhancement of Synaptic Plasticity through Chronically Reduced Ca2+ Flux during Uncorrelated Activity. Neuron 44, 835–849 (2004).
- Kirkland, A. E., Sarlo, G. L. & Holton, K. F. The Role of Magnesium in Neurological Disorders. Nutrients 10, (2018).
- Köbe, T. et al. Vitamin B-12 concentration, memory performance, and hippocampal structure in patients with mild cognitive impairment. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 103, 1045–1054 (2016).
- Nalder, L., Zheng, B., Chiandet, G., Middleton, L. T. & de Jager, C. A. Vitamin B12 and Folate Status in Cognitively Healthy Older Adults and Associations with Cognitive Performance. J. Nutr. Health Aging 25, 287–294 (2021).