Short-term memory loss is common. Learn how to know whether the cause is a health condition or your lifestyle. Then take these steps to improve your memory.
If you have trouble learning new material 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 it’s the first sign of Alzheimer’s.
While this can be true, fortunately it is rarely the case.
So first let’s take a look at exactly what short-term memory is.
Then we’ll examine the most common causes of short-term memory loss and steps you can take to stop it.
What Is Short-Term Memory Loss?
Before we can talk about short-term memory loss, we need a clear definition of short-term memory.
Your 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 note.”
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 goes on in the brain.
Here are a few examples of ways you use your short-term memory during the day:
- To temporarily memorize a phone number or appointment date until you jot it down.
- To remember a comment you want to make when your companion is done talking.
- To prompt 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.
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Clearly, you don’t want or need to remember every single detail of everything that’s ever happened to you!
This ability to discard useless information keeps 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 7 pieces of information in our short-term memory, give or take 2. (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 4 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.
You’ll notice that a memory must first go through short-term memory 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 what’s referred to 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 random access memory (RAM), which provides working space for short computations.
Your long-term memory is like your computer’s hard drive where data is stored permanently.
Until something goes wrong.
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Short-Term Memory Loss Defined — It’s Complicated
Now that you’ve got a good understanding of short-term memory, a short-term memory loss definition will make more sense.
Short-term memory loss is commonly used to broadly describe forgetting things that happened recently.
But the scientific definition of short-term memory refers to the memory process which involves remembering bits of data for just a few seconds.
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In fact, almost all memories that go through the short-term memory step are filtered out and forgotten.
The experts consider a long-term memory one that lasts more than 30 seconds! (3)
But both doctors who work with patients and the general public alike almost always use the broad definition of short-term memory loss — meaning not being able to remember things that happened recently. (4)
That’s the definition we’ll be using too.
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Short-Term Memory Loss Symptoms
Most symptoms of short-term memory loss are typical moments of forgetfulness that are not serious.
Here are some memory loss signs you may be experiencing that are considered normal:
- misplacing common objects
- not being able to come up with the right word to say
- not remembering what you just read
- walking into a room and not remembering why
- occasionally calling people you care about by the wrong name
Moments like these are considered “mild” forgetfulness. (5)
But signs your memory loss may be serious include:
- getting seriously lost 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
- repeatedly asking the same question
- experiencing personality changes
Your friends and family are often better judges of your behavior than you are.
One of the most reliable signs that your short-term memory loss is a problem is their expressing concern about your well-being.
Causes of Short-Term Memory Loss
What causes short-term memory loss?
There are a wide variety of reasons for short-term memory loss.
Most fall into one of two categories — health-related or lifestyle-related.
Medical Conditions That Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
Here’s a list of medical conditions that can exhibit short-term memory loss as a major or minor symptom:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Anxiety disorders
- Brain injuries
- Brain tumor
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Head trauma
- Heavy metal poisoning
- Lyme disease
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Nutritional deficiencies (such as vitamin B12)
- Pick disease
- Psychiatric disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Substance abuse (alcohol and drugs)
- Toxin exposure
- Thyroid disease
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- West Nile virus
- Wilson’s disease
A medically induced cause of memory loss is prescription medications.
There are over 20 types of drugs that can cause memory loss.
Two of the worst offenders are cholesterol lowering medications and sleeping pills.
If you take any prescription medications, make sure they aren’t contributing to your memory loss.
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Lifestyle-Related Short-Term Memory Loss Causes
The causes of short-term memory loss are not always medical conditions.
Often our modern unhealthy lifestyle is to blame.
Between poor food choices, lack of sleep and exercise, too much stress, exposure to toxins, and sensory overload, it’s a wonder most of us can think and remember as well as we do.
While all lifestyle factors affect your brain function to some degree, three of the biggest culprits that specifically affect short-term memory are lack of sleep, stress, and sugar.
Think of them as “The Three S’s” to help you remember.
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1. Your brain is hard at work while you sleep.
It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, washes out metabolic debris, and repairs and creates new brain cells.
This is also when your brain moves memories from short-term storage into long-term storage, clearing the slate for the next day. (6)
Sleep deprivation sharply decreases the amount of information that can be held in short-term memory.
Normally, we can remember 4-7 bits of information at a time.
The 20 million Americans who suffer with sleep apnea face an additional hazard to their brains.
During sleep, their brains do not get enough oxygen which leads to brain cell loss in the regions that store short-term memories. (9)
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Not sure if you’ve got sleep apnea?
The most obvious signs are loud snoring and waking up choking or gasping for breath.
Often you won’t remember these episodes, so your sleeping partner will be the one to tell you.
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One of the main reasons people have more trouble getting to sleep now than ever before is exposure to the blue light emitted by our electronic devices.
When we use our electronics in the evening before bedtime, the brain registers this light as daylight, sending a signal that it’s time to be awake and alert.
2. Stress is one of your brain’s worst enemies.
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause your brain to age prematurely and to literally shrink.
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This leads to short-term memory loss, which becomes especially pronounced as we age. (11)
Chronic stress can also lead to depression, anxiety, poor decision making, and sleeplessness.
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3. Eating a diet high in sugar, white flour and other simple carbohydrates is one of the worst things you can do to your brain.
Your brain needs a steady supply of carbohydrates — the key word being “steady.”
But simple carbs send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride and this is very hard on your brain.
Excessive glucose affects your attention span, your short-term memory, and your mood stability.
It increases free radical damage and inflammation of the brain.
It can even change your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly. (12)
Recently, a correlation has been found between sugar consumption and Alzheimer’s.
Some experts are even calling Alzheimer’s another form of diabetes — type 3 diabetes.
Consuming too many simple carbohydrates can cause insulin resistance in the brain.
It’s evident even in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s that the brain’s ability to metabolize sugar, its main form of energy, is reduced.
Insulin becomes less effective in using glucose from the blood, and brain cells literally to starve to death. (13)
Simply put, the better your glucose metabolism, the better your brain and your short-term memory will be. (14)
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When to Be Concerned About Short-Term Memory Loss
Your short-term memory is designed to filter and forget that which it deems unimportant, which is most of the information it receives.
This is why people with short-term memory loss might not remember what they had for breakfast since this piece of information was discarded before making its way into their long-term memory.
While it’s not important in the scheme of things, it still doesn’t feel normal.
So how can you tell when it’s a problem?
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If your memory loss has ever scared you or concerned others, or you’ve forgotten something truly important, you should be concerned.
The biggest fear about short-term memory loss is that it may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
While most people who have short-term memory loss are not in the first stages of Alzheimer’s, it can be one of the first signs.
When memory loss is a precursor of this disease, it follows a particular pattern.
Generally a person in the first stages of Alzheimer’s won’t remember details of today or last week, yet they’ll very clearly remember details of their distant past.
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Consider Taking a Short-Term Memory Test
If you are worried about your memory, you may want to take a short-term memory test so you know where you stand.
Here are some reputable tests — two offered by universities and one by a non-profit organization — that will give you legitimate results.
Saint Louis University Mental Status Examination consists of eight questions. You can download this as a PDF or print it out.
Food for the Brain Cognitive Function Test is offered by a non-profit organization based in the UK.
This test is designed to be taken once a year so that you can monitor your memory loss over time.
Set aside 15 minutes to take this one online.
If you have reason to believe your memory loss may be serious, take 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.
This is not your typical do-it-yourself memory test.
This is a serious test used by medical professionals.
You won’t get a score when you’ve finished. You’ll have to get your results evaluated by a medical professional.
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Beware of Most Online Tests
Some online memory tests are misleading and even predatory. (15)
Many are designed to use your test results to scare you into buying a product or service.
One popular test gives everyone who takes it a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
Often these tests are used to gather data on you which can be used to create targeted online ads and is often sold to companies who mine data. (16)
If the website looks overly commercial rather than educational, or you have any other reason to be suspicious, avoid it.
It’s very likely they are gathering information from you to sell to advertisers, employers, and insurance companies.
Overcoming Short-Term Memory Loss
Fortunately, your brain is plastic — it is always changing.
So no matter how bad your memory is now, you can halt the decline and even improve it provided you start doing the right things.
There are two approaches you can take to help improve your short-term memory.
You’ll get best results if you do them both.
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Mental Exercises and Memory Tips
First, there are techniques you can start doing right now that will help you retain new information.
Do one thing at a time. Your brain has to pick what to remember.
Don’t give it the choice to filter out that which you want to remember.
Avoid distractions. Short-term memory is a fragile thing.
If something distracts you on the way to the kitchen, you’ll forget why you’re there.
Fully concentrate. Don’t be thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow or worry about what happened yesterday.
Your ability to concentrate on the present can greatly enhance your ability to learn and remember new information.
Say it out loud. If there’s a fact, name or number you want to learn, repeat it several times either out loud or to yourself.
This simple action will help you remember it. (17)
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Chunking. Chunking is breaking up information into smaller, more memorable bits.
You might have trouble remembering the number 8034273298, but would find it easier to remember 803-427-3298.
That is why phone numbers, social security numbers, and nine digit zip codes are broken down into smaller chunks.
Write it down. The act of writing something requires concentration and will further help you remember.
Writing helps you remember better than typing the same information into your electronic devices.
Turns out that, at least where you memory is concerned, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard!” (18)
Take a walk. Your short-term memory is improved by walking in nature.
If you can’t walk outside, just looking at an image of a natural scene can help. (19)
Drink some coffee. Caffeine exerts a positive effect on short-term memory and reaction times.
But don’t overdo it or you’ll be adding to your stress level. (20)
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Develop Brain-Healthy Habits
The second approach addresses the issues that often lead to an underperforming memory.
This is not a quick fix, but it is the way to long-lasting memory improvement.
Develop a brain-healthy lifestyle.
In particular, tackle the three worst short-term memory culprits — sleep, stress, and simple carbs.
Get serious about regularly getting a good night’s sleep.
Take proactive measures to reduce stress.
We highly recommend meditation.
A regular meditation practice will reduce stress, help you sleep, and train your brain to focus on one thing at a time.
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Over 1,000 studies have been published demonstrating the health benefits of meditation. (21)
Besides stress reduction, it’s been proven to improve memory, learning ability, and mood, increase focus and attention, and even reverse brain atrophy.
Eat a diet that’s high in brain-healthy foods and low in brain-damaging sugar and other simple carbohydrates.
Short-Term Memory Loss: The Bottom Line
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.
Take an appropriate short-term memory test to see where you stand.
Use proven memory tips and exercises to remember more.
Mind the “3 S’s” that can make or break your brain health and memory — sleep, stress levels, and sugar.