Short-Term Memory Loss: Causes, Symptoms, Testing

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Last updated January 17, 2024.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

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 common problem, but it can be worrying.

There are a lot of misconceptions about memory loss and how serious it might be.

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.

Short-term memory acts like the 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 within 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 just met
  • 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.

Short-term memory also acts as a filter, letting the brain decide which information is important enough to keep.

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


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Short-Term Memory Capacity

How many pieces of information can the 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. 

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

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. 

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.

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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.

Short-term memory works like a computer’s RAM (random access memory), providing working space for short computations.

Long-term memory is like a computer’s data storage device where information is stored permanently, or until something goes wrong.

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.

However, 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 or temporarily losing one’s memory.  

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, not all short-term memory loss is caused by dementia and it is usually not serious. 


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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
  • Occasionally calling people you care about by the wrong name 

According to the National Institute on Aging, moments like these are considered mild forgetfulness

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 that 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: 

Memory problems and other signs of cognitive decline are so common with certain diseases that some 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

Short-term memory loss experienced with fibromyalgia is often referred to as fibro fog

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.

Many prescription drugs list short-term memory loss as a side effect.

A group of drugs known as anticholinergics can trigger short-term memory loss by blocking the action of acetylcholine, the main neurotransmitter associated with learning and memory. 

Acetylcholine 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.

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

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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

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 short-term memory. 

Fortunately, due to a property called neuroplasticity, the brain has the capacity to grow, change, and improve throughout a 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 sleep issues, 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 an estimated 50 million Americans have a sleep disorder

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

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

Normally, you should be able to remember three to five bits of information at a time, but when you don’t get enough quality sleep, that number plummets to one or two. 

How Stress Contributes to Short-Term Memory Loss

Stress is one of the brain’s worst enemies.

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

Stress disrupts the brain’s short-term memory recall and changes the brain’s function and structure down to the level of DNA

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How Sugar Accelerates Short-Term Memory Loss

The 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 can push blood glucose levels into an unhealthy range.

This adversely affects short-term memory

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

It can even change brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly. 

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

Addressing Short-Term Memory Loss

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

However, if your symptoms seem serious or if you believe that 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 all the 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 eleven-question test that you can take at home.

You can download this PDF from the Saint Louis University School of Medicine website and print it out to take at a convenient time.

Get a friend or family member 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 over 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 on your own at home, it is a serious test used by healthcare professionals.

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

You won’t get your score upon finishing; you’ll need to take your test results to your doctor who will evaluate it for you.

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