Do you struggle to get somewhere without being glued to Google Maps? How about remembering a shopping list that hasn’t been jotted down in Notes? Writer Kimberley Bond explores how tech has destroyed our memories – and how exercise could be the key to getting them back.
As we rack up an average of 3hr 20mins a day in screen time, it’s unsurprising that most of the time we have our smartphones well within reach. These small devices give us immediate access to an unlimited mine of information, rightat our fingertips. We can look up where we’ve seen that actor before, search for the name of that nice coffee shop we want to try at the weekend and get an app that tells us what that song on the radio is.
The convenience of smartphones has led to tech infiltrating every aspect of our lives; our smartphones are our personal planners – nudging us about meetings, setting alerts for appointments and retaining hundreds of numbers. It’s little wonder that nine out of 10 people in the UK have a smartphone.
But for all the benefits this abundance of technology has brought, there may be one unfortunate and unintended side effect of having it so closely integrated into our lives. Some neuroscientists believe that outsourcing so much of our day-to-day to external devices could have had a detrimental effect on our memory.
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“Memory is essential for our ability to recall and learn and is created in three stages: sensory, short-term and long-term memory,” explains Dr Zara Quail, the clinical scientific research lead at Goldster, a digital app focused on healthy ageing.
“To form a memory, we need a sensory input typically from what we see (iconic memory) or hear (echoic memory). In paying attention to what we have seen or heard, that information can be formed into a short-term memory which is stored temporarily by the brain to be recalled after about 10 to 30 seconds.
“Working memory is then involved in information that needs to be quickly accessible to solve a problem such as doing a puzzle or mathematics. Long-term memory is formed when the hippocampus receives information from the working memory and then creates recent and remote long-term memories. Once memories are encoded and stored, they can then be retrieved or recalled.”
She believes that having constant easy access to an encyclopaedia of information, telephone numbers or maps on our smartphones means that our brains are being challenged less. And the main function that we’re not exercising as much as we used to is memory retrieval.
Dr Nikki Ramskill, GP at Livi, agrees: “Being dependent on technology to remember things can make your memory worse, with some experts arguing that prolonged use will likely reduce grey matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory.”
The constant pings, dings and nudges from your phone can also be hugely distracting, which only adds to recall difficulties. “Attention is required for a short-term memory to become a working or longer-term memory for recall and learning,” says Dr Quail.
She points to a 2020 study on undergraduate students, which showed that those who thought about their smartphones more often had less accurate memory recall – suggesting that simply having a smartphone nearby or even thinking about a favourite device when you’re trying to learn might have a negative impact on memory learning and recall.
This, when coupled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic – which saw so much of our lives forced to move to more technical spheres – could be why 80% of people believe their memories got worse in the last two years.
Cardio exercise may help to repair poor tech-memory
However, there is growing evidence that this digital-induced amnesia can be somewhat thwarted by physical exercise. While we’re all aware that keeping fit and active is good for our mind, people are less in tune to the fact that bicep curls are good for our brain.
“Studies to date have looked at the effects of exercise relating to the brain anatomy, such as the size of the hippocampus which is integral to memory formation, and molecules like brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor which is a key molecule involved in brain plasticity, memory and learning,” explains Dr Quail. “People who exercised regularly were shown to have larger hippocampi and improved memory.”
And it’s aerobic exercises like running, swimming, cycling and even walking that is thought to be the most beneficial for improving our cognitive abilities.
A 2020 study published in Neurology and conducted in Canada looked at the memories of 200 adults, all of whom were in good health but considered as generally inactive. They were asked to take part in a test that assessed their cognitive abilities before enrolling in a new aerobic exercise programme, which they had to stick with for a six-month period.
When the tests were repeated at the end of the programme, there was a significant increase in their cognitive skills.
Brain benefits from exercise
Reduced brain age by five years
On average, their executive function had improved by an average of 5.7%, verbal fluency scores had increased by 2.4% and peak blood flow to the brain had risen by 2.8%. Neuroscientist Marc Poulin, who ran the study, said the results were comparable to that of someone five years younger than the test subjects, and were indicative of how vigorous exercise that promoted vigorous flow to the brain “improved memory and mental sharpness”.
Increased blood flow decreases the risk of dementia
Dr Quail explains why this might be: “Adequate blood flow to the brain is essential for brain functioning. Cardiovascular exercise increases blood flow, benefits cardiac and vascular health and reduces the risk of diseases that impact brain and memory like hypertension, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Boosted mood and sleep
“But also exercise has knock-on benefits for improving mood and sleep and reducing stress, anxiety and inflammation which can all have impacts on memory and cognition.”
Yoga can also help boost memory and mood
Exercise that encourages mindfulness, such as yoga, can also be beneficial in keeping your memory ticking effectively.
In a study published in Brain Plasticity, researchers undertook a longitudinal analysis at 11 previous studies that assessed the impact yoga has on the brain.
Neha Gothe, study author and director of the exercise psychology lab at the University of Illinois, found that yoga had an overarchingly beneficial impact on areas of the brain “responsible for memory and information processing, as well as emotional regulation”.
“We believe one of the key mechanisms could be that regular yoga practice impacts emotional regulation,” Gothe explains, adding that activities that reduce stress, anxiety and other negative emotional responses may improve brain function, including memory.
How does exercise improve our brain health?
“Exercise affects the body by creating physical changes such as reducing insulin resistance and inflammation, along with encouraging production of growth factors,” explains Abbas Kanani, pharmacist and health adviser for Chemist Click. “The chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, this growth, in turn, helps to improve not only memory but also mood, performance and pain management.”
But if you’re more into lifting weights, that doesn’t necessarily mean your routine is dulling your brain function.
“Ultimately, the type of exercise that is most beneficial to an individual’s memory is the exercise they will most likely enjoy and do regularly,” Dr Quail says.
“Evidence demonstrates that any type of regular physical activity has been shown to have a medium impact on improving cognitive health and function and reducing the risk of cognitive decline.”
How long does it take to improve memory from exercise?
However, stepping things up in the gym doesn’t automatically mean you’ll suddenly be able to recall all the numbers stored in your smartphone.
“We rely on technology so much that without it, I don’t think we would cope immediately,” says Kanani. However, we would soon adopt our previous way of being and our minds would adapt back as we begin to retrain our brain. “I would suggest weaning yourself off by staggering information that is being stored in your memory. For example, you may want to keep work-related reminders and dates in your laptop diary, but for social reminders and dates, try to memorise these rather than storing them in a device.
“One good example would be the grocery shop; rather than writing down what you need in your notes app, try and memorise items, this will act as a good bit of brain memory training.”
It’s normal to become more forgetful, although exercise might slow down the decline
And it’s worth noting that we do, of course, become slightly more forgetful as we age. That’s a totally normal part of getting older.
“Mild forgetfulness is normal for everyone,” Dr Quail says. “The key issue is if forgetfulness or memory loss is impacting on daily functioning and quality of life.”
Like with pretty much everything in life, the best way to approach looking after your memory and your fitness is taking everything in moderation.
“My advice is to take a balanced approach when it comes to looking after your cognitive health,” says Dr Ramskill. “In many instances smart technology can help us remember important things and reduce stress, but try not to completely depend on it. It’s important that we continue to challenge our memory, learn new things and adopt a lifestyle that promotes good cognitive health, including physical exercise and eating well.”
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