It’s normal for your memory to decline as you age. This is due, in part, to the shrinking of your hippocampus, the structure in your brain responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term memories.
But can you grow your hippocampus? Yes. Focusing on ways to grow the size of the hippocampus can make sure your memory doesn’t decline too fast and slow memory loss. The most effective ways to grow your hippocampus are natural and you can implement them into your life today.
This post is part of my your brain on nature series, where I walk you through the different parts of the brain and how spending more time in nature can positively impact your neuroscience. Overall, spending more time in nature and living a more natural lifestyle can improve your mental health, improve your cognitive functioning, and grow your hippocampus!
What is the hippocampus?
In the center of your brain, you most likely have two thumb-sized structures. Each of them is called a hippocampus and they are responsible for your long-term memory, a crucial aspect of your brain health.
The hippocampus was discovered in the famous case of H.M., a young man in the 20th century who couldn’t form memories. He turned to famous neurosurgeon Dr. William Scoville who discovered that H.M had short-term memories, but no long-term ones. From there, neurosurgeons learned that short-term and long-term memory processing are in two different parts in the brain.
The hippocampus is responsible for translating our short-term memories into long term ones. It’s important to note that the hippocampus does not control motor and muscle memory. It controls knowing what, not knowing how or spatial memory.
While H.M. did not have a hippocampus at all, it’s also possible to grow or shrink a hippocampus. In fact, everyday choices you make might already be growing or shrinking your hippocampi or affecting the plasticity of this part of your brain.
Grow your hippocampus with neurogenesis
Like most structures in your brain, a hippocampus is made up of neurons. Researchers have discovered that there are over 700 new neurons in your hippocampus each day, though most do not survive and become active members of the hippocampi. Certain actions make more hippocampal neurons through a process called hippocampal neurogenesis.
When there aren’t new neurons, the adult brain goes into a state of cognitive decline. This includes memory impairment, epilepsy, an increased risk of a brain injury, and a decrease in overall neuroplasticity. For many years, neuroscientists thought the decline of this region of the brain was age-related, with little influence from our actions. Now, we know hippocampal neurogenesis is possible when we make the right life decisions for this area of the brain.
There are many ways to make more hippocampi and improve memory performance. These include:
- Regular exercise
- Learning new things or a new language
- Eating a Mediterranean Diet
- Meditation and mindfulness
Physical exercise plays an important role in creating new neurons in your hippocampus. A recent meta-analysis reflects a comprehensive review of the literature on memory and exercise. In almost every study, the researchers found a positive correlation between increased exercise and improved memory through increased neuron development in the hippocampus and increased blood flow to the brain.
A 2004 study looking specifically at Alzheimer’s and dementia in physically capable men found participants who walked more saw a decreased risk of both diseases. In fact, walking more than 2 miles a day on average led to a 40% decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s for older adults.
While not as directly related to growing the hippocampus, nature has been found to positively impact brain function. You might want to take your aerobic exercise or weightlifting workout outside to grow even more new brain cells! To learn more about the connection between nature and improved memory, check out my last installment of the your brain on nature series.
Learning new things
Learning new things can take a variety of forms, such as taking a class on photography at a local college, picking up a new book, learning a language, or playing a new musical instrument. When you learn new things, you not only create new neurons in the hippocampus but strengthen old ones.
Eating a Mediterranean Diet
Eating foods that are high in amino acids promotes healthy neuron production in the hippocampus. One diet full of amino acids is the Mediterranean Diet. This diet includes:
- Fish, especially ones full of fatty-omega such as salmon
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
This diet also stresses less processed foods. The more natural and organic your food can be, the closer it is to the mediterranean diet.
Some researches claim intermittent fasting and supplements and foods high in antioxidants, such as blueberries, help with hippocampal neurogenesis and creating new nerve cells, though more research needed to be done on both.
Meditation and mindfulness
Multiple mindfulness practices have been shown to increase memory. A 2021 study looked at the effect of mindfulness-based meditation on women with breast cancer. The researchers discovered that it not only helped to ease anxiety around the participants’ cancer treatments, but also improved their working memory.
If your mind starts to wonder during basic mindfulness meditations, try breathwork in nature. It is actually an active and embodied form of meditation. Because breathwork requires engaging your breath and body, instead of just focusing on your thoughts, it allows you to “get out of your own head” and sink into the embodied practice. For some, this leads to bigger and more powerful healing breakthroughs than mindfulness meditation could do alone.
Factors that shrink the hippocampus
While it’s easy to grow more neurons in the hippocampus, it’s equally as easy to kill neurons too. When there are fewer neurons in the hippocampus, it shrinks. You can shrink the hippocampus with:
- Months or years of stress
- Untreated anxiety and depression
- Untreated diabetes
- Inflammatory foods or junk food
- A sedentary lifestyle
Not only has each of these conditions been linked to a smaller hippocampus, they have all been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
If you want to learn how to avoid years of stress, download my free guide to feel less stressed this week using nature. While many studies have linked time in nature to lower levels of stress, you just have to step outside to feel those researchers are right!
Growing your hippocampus comes down to making healthy lifestyle decisions. When you eat right, learn new things, practice mindfulness, exercise, and spend time in nature, you can preserve neurons in the hippocampus and grow more healthy neurons. Here’s to choosing lifestyle decisions that will allow us to remember them in the future.