Short-Term Memory Loss: Causes, Symptoms, Testing

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Is your short-term memory loss normal? Many health conditions, medications, and lifestyle habits affect memory. Testing will help you know where you stand.

If you have trouble learning new things or remembering what you just read, or you frequently forget why you walked into a room, you may be dealing with short-term memory loss.

Short-term memory loss is a very common problem, but there are a lot of misconceptions about it, and about how serious it is if you’re experiencing it.

You may have heard that it’s the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

While this can be true, it is rarely the case.

What Is Short-Term Memory?

Before we can talk about short-term memory loss, we need to be clear on what short-term memory is.

Short-term memory, sometimes referred to as working memory, is the process of temporarily storing small bits of information for a very short amount of time, usually for only 15-30 seconds.

Your short-term memory acts like your brain’s “scratch pad” or “sticky notes.”

While short-term memory is believed to largely occur in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, it isn’t a place in the brain as much as it’s a process that occurs in the brain.

Here are a few examples of ways you use your short-term memory:

  • Temporarily memorizing a phone number or appointment date until you record it somewhere permanently
  • Recalling the name of someone you were just introduced to
  • Remembering a comment you want to make when your companion is done talking
  • Prompting yourself when driving, as in “I’ll change lanes as soon as the blue car on my left passes”

This kind of information quickly disappears unless you make a point to try to remember it.

Your short-term memory also acts as a filter, deciding what’s important enough to keep and what’s not.

In fact, the ability to discard useless information is absolutely necessary to keep your brain from being overwhelmed.

Short-Term Memory Capacity

How many pieces of information can your brain hold at one time?

“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.

It suggests that we can store seven pieces of information in our short-term memory, give or take two. (1)

But this study is now over 50 years old which, in brain science terms, makes it positively ancient.

The latest research has found that the new “magic number” is lower than that.

It’s more likely that only three to five pieces of information can normally be held in working memory at any one time. (2)

Below is an illustration that shows the part short-term memory plays in your memory process.

chart depicting how memories are stored
How memories are processed and stored.

You’ll notice that a memory must first go through the short-term memory process on its way to becoming a long-term memory.

Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory can store an indefinite amount of information, potentially for a lifetime.

Prompting yourself to temporarily remember a piece of information — like repeating a phone number in your head until you write it down — is known as rehearsal.

A good analogy of how memory works is to compare it to a computer.

Your short-term memory works like your computer’s RAM (random access memory), which provides working space for short computations.

Your long-term memory is like your computer’s data storage device where information is stored permanently.

Until something goes wrong.

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Short-Term Memory Loss Defined: It’s Not Straightforward

Now that you’ve got a good understanding of short-term memory, a definition of short-term memory loss will make more sense.

Short-term memory loss is the term commonly used to broadly describe forgetting things that happened recently.

But the scientifically accepted definition of short-term memory refers to the process that involves remembering bits of data for just a few seconds.

In fact, almost all memories that go through the short-term memory process are filtered out and forgotten.

But, both doctors who work with patients and the general public almost always use the broad definition of short-term memory loss — not being able to remember things that happened recently. (3)

So that’s the definition we’ll use in the rest of this article.

Short-Term Memory Loss Symptoms: Some Normal, Some Serious

Most people wrongly equate short-term memory loss with dementia.

While people with dementia usually do have problems with their short-term memory, rest assured that not all short-term memory loss is caused by dementia and it is usually not serious. (4)

Here are some signs that your short-term memory loss falls within the normal range and is nothing to be alarmed about:

  • Misplacing common objects
  • Not being able to come up with the right word at times
  • Not remembering something you just read
  • Walking into a room and not remembering why
  • Calling people you care about by the wrong name occasionally

According to the National Institute on Aging, moments like these are considered mild forgetfulness. (5)

And how can you determine if your memory loss is serious?

One of the most reliable signs of significant short-term memory loss is if your friends and family express concern about your memory issues to you.

They are often better judges of your behavior than you are.

Other signs your memory loss may be serious include:

  • Getting lost when you’re close to home
  • Having a hard time following simple book or movie plots
  • Struggling to keep up with daily tasks like paying bills or preparing meals
  • Not remembering whether you’ve eaten or not
  • Asking the same question repeatedly
  • Experiencing personality changes
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Medical Conditions That Cause Short-Term Memory Loss

Short-term memory loss can be a major or minor symptom of a long list of diverse medical conditions including: (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11)

  • brain injuries and diseases
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • epilepsy
  • hypertension
  • menopause
  • neurological disorders
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • side effect of surgery
  • stroke and transient ischemic attack
  • substance abuse (alcohol and drugs)
  • thyroid disorders

Memory problems and other signs of cognitive decline are so common with certain diseases that some of them have their own layman’s terms.

The short-term and long-term memory loss associated with chemotherapy treatments used to combat cancer is known as chemo brain. (12)

Short-term memory loss experienced with fibromyalgia is often referred to as fibro fog. (13)

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Drugs That Cause Short-Term Memory Loss

Sometimes it’s the drug treatment for a health condition, not the condition itself, that causes memory loss.

There are many prescription drugs that list short-term memory loss as a side effect.

A group of drugs called anticholinergics can trigger short-term memory loss by blocking the action of acetylcholine. (14)

Read more —
If you are taking any medications you suspect are causing your memory loss, check out Drugs That Cause Memory Loss (& what you can do).

Acetylcholine is the main brain chemical associated with learning and memory.

It is also essential for turning short-term memories into long-term ones.

The level of acetylcholine naturally declines with age which puts older adults at greater risk for memory loss induced by their medications. (15)

Two of the worst kinds of medications for short-term memory loss are anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) and narcotic painkillers (opioid analgesics). (16)

And it’s not only prescription drugs that can affect your memory.

Some over-the-counter remedies such as the antihistamine Benadryl (diphenhydramine) are anticholinergic and have been linked to dementia.

And as you might expect, recreational substances ranging from alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana to heroin and cocaine take a toll on short-term memory. (1718)

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Lifestyle Causes of Short-Term Memory Loss

The causes of short-term memory loss are not always medical.

Often an unhealthy lifestyle is to blame.

This means that by simply making healthier choices, you can stop and even reverse memory loss and other signs of mental decline.

For example, even something as simple as being chronically dehydrated can impact your short-term memory. (19)

Fortunately, due to a property called neuroplasticity, your brain has the capability to grow, change, and improve throughout your lifetime.

So no matter how bad your memory is now, you can halt its decline and even improve your memory provided you start doing the right things.

While all lifestyle factors affect your general brain function to some degree, three of the worst offenders that are specifically harmful to short-term memory are lack of sleep, stress, and sugar.

How Insomnia Causes Short-Term Memory Loss

Getting adequate sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your brain, yet over 60 million Americans struggle with chronic insomnia. (20)

Sleep-deprived brains are inefficient and have to work harder. (21)

Lack of quality sleep wreaks havoc on both your long-term and short-term memories.

Normally, you should be able to remember four to seven bits of information at a time, but when you don’t get enough sleep that number plummets to one or two. (22)

How Stress Contributes to Short-Term Memory Loss

Stress is one of your brain’s worst enemies.

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause your brain to literally shrink and age prematurely, leading to short-term memory loss. (23)

Stress disrupts your brain’s short-term memory recall and changes your brain’s function and structure down to the level of your DNA. (24, 25)

How Sugar Accelerates Short-Term Memory Loss

Your brain needs a steady supply of glucose, its main fuel.

The key word here is “steady.”

But the simple carbs found in the types of sugar and flour commonly used in processed foods push blood glucose levels into an unhealthy range.

This adversely affects short-term memory. (26)

Read more —
Discover the best ways to improve your short-term memory with diet, supplements, and other healthy lifestyle habits in How To Improve Short-Term Memory.

Sugar also increases free radical damage and promotes inflammation of the brain.

It can even change your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly. (27)

Consuming too many simple carbohydrates can even cause insulin resistance in the brain.

This type of insulin resistance has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. (28)

Addressing Short-Term Memory Loss

If your short-term memory loss symptoms fall within the normal range, making the recommended healthy lifestyle adjustments above should help.

However, if your symptoms seem serious or you believe an underlying health condition is contributing to your memory loss, talk to your doctor.

Sometimes the fix can be as simple as changing a medication or getting a treatable health condition under control.

This would also be an excellent time to discuss any medications you’re taking to make sure that they aren’t the source of your memory loss.

Short-Term Memory Tests

If you’re concerned about your memory, you may want to take a short-term memory test so you know where you stand.

You can use your test results as a baseline to monitor how your memory changes over time or as a talking point with your doctor.

Here are some reputable science-based tests that will give you useful results:

Saint Louis University Mental Status Examination

The Saint Louis University Mental Status Examination is a quick eight-question test you can take at home.

You can download this as a PDF or print it out from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine website.

It will help if you have someone to administer the test since one of the questions involves recalling a list of objects read to you.

Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment

Baycrest is Canada’s largest geriatric healthcare institute and a world leader in memory research.

They have developed the Cogniciti Brain Health Assessment which has been taken by nearly 100,000 adults.

Set aside twenty minutes to take this brain health assessment online.

You’ll receive feedback and a recommendation as to whether you should talk to your doctor about your memory concerns.

Ohio State University Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE)

If you believe your memory loss may be serious, talk to your doctor about taking the Ohio State University Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE).

The SAGE test is designed to detect early signs of memory loss and other cognitive impairments.

Even though you can take this test by yourself at home, it is a serious test used by health care professionals.

You can download it from the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center website.

You won’t get your score when you’ve finished; instead take your test results to your doctor who will evaluate it for you.

Short-Term Memory Loss: Take the Next Step

Short-term memory loss is a common phenomenon with many causes.

It can be considered normal, and changes to your lifestyle are often all that’s required to get your memory back on track.

But it can be more serious, especially if the cause is an underlying health condition or the side effect of a medication.

Taking an online memory test can help you know where you stand.

If your memory loss has you worried, discuss your situation with your doctor.

READ NEXT: How to Improve Short-Term Memory