Lifestyle Effects on Working Memory Ability

Youth with healthy lifestyles have better brain function and working memory.

Posted May 23, 2018

On multiple occasions, readers of my learning and memory blog posts asked me what they could do to improve their working memory. This is an important and very practical question. Working memory affects all aspects of life success: personal, educational, and professional. I usually tell them to practice attentiveness and concentration. But I probably should tell them to adapt a healthier lifestyle.

For over a decade, a variety of studies have implicated lifestyle in memory function. A rigorous new study confirms these results. An Israeli research team studied 823 participants, aged 22-37 years, using brain scans taken during a difficult memory task, post-scan memory tests, and numerous measures of health and lifestyle. The brain scans identified the brain areas that particularly engage in working memory tasks, most important of which were the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex. These then served as a frame of reference to check for correlations with health and lifestyle.

The key finding was a strong correlation between activity in working-memory brain areas and health and lifestyle. With all behavior/health variables considered together, the highest positive correlation occurred, in order, with fluid intelligence, reading, spatial orientation, picture vocabulary, several memory tests, and attentiveness.  

They observed an opposite correlation for such specific life-style indicators as large body mass index and a variety of unwise lifestyles such as binge drinking, and regular smoking. Health variables that correlated negatively with working-memory brain areas included high body-mass index, high blood pressure, poor glucose regulation.

The healthy lifestyle variables also correlated with other cognitive functions, such as fluid intelligence, reading/language skills, visuospatial orientation, sustained attention, mental flexibility and emotional intelligence, and physical endurance. Thus, the working memory benefit from healthy lifestyles seems to reflect a general improvement of brain function that good health confers.

The principle confirmed here supports the underlying theme of my recent e-book for seniors, which explained how memory serves a function like a canary in the coal mine. Memory decline is a warning signal of a damaged brain. That book explains the healthy life styles that people should be using as they age in order to keep the brain healthy and prevent memory deterioration. Changing lifestyle after the damage has already occurred may be too late. The point is that young people with healthy lifestyles have better brain function, and those lifestyles will help both body and brain to age well.

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Klemm, W. R. (2014). Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine.

Moser, D. A. et al. (2017). An integrated brain-behavior model for working memory. Molecular Psychiatry. Doi: 10.1038/mp.2017.247