From having simple conversations to doing complex assignments at work or school, we all rely on short-term memory to get through the day. Unfortunately, many different factors can cause short-term memory loss.
Read on to find out what causes these memory problems, how you can prevent them, and the different ways you can improve your short-term memory.
What Is Memory?
Memory is the storing of information in your brain for later use.
There are many different types of memory, but short-term memory deals with storing information for a short amount of time in a state you can easily access. An example of this would be trying to remember a phone number you were just told and could not write down.
Unlike long-term memory, this type of short-term memory can be lost rapidly unless you actively try to memorize it. The act of trying to keep something in your memory, such as repeating the name of someone you just met over and over, is called rehearsing.
Short-term memory is very similar to “working memory,” although the two have important differences. “Short-term memory” just deals with the temporary storing of information, while “working memory” refers both to the short-term storage of information as well as active manipulation of that information.
For example, trying to remember a phone number until you have a chance to write it down would fall under short-term memory, whereas trying to remember a phone number while adding ‘1’ to each number and then repeating it back would be an example of using working memory.
However, both types of memory are interrelated, and anything that affects working memory generally also affects short-term memory .
Together, short-term and working memory are also very distinct from the other major types of memory such as autobiographical, semantic, and long-term memory, and so it makes sense to talk about them together.
What Is Short-Term Memory Loss?
Short-term memory loss involves frequently losing track of recent or ongoing events. Examples of this would include situations like forgetting where you left your keys, walking into a room and not remembering why you entered it or forgetting the topic of conversation while talking to someone.
Of course, everyday examples like these happen to everyone once in a while and are not cause for concern by themselves. However, if this kind of things happens to you more frequently than usual, this might hint at a more serious underlying problem (such as “brain fog,” for example).
People who are suffering from short-term memory loss usually don’t have problems remembering things from their childhood (“long-term” or “autobiographical” memory), or how to drive or ride a bike (“procedural” memory). This is because these types of memories are kept separately in the brain, and only a very major health problem would be able to impair all of them at the same time. However, smaller or more subtle health issues can affect these memory systems individually, which is why short-term memory loss is usually specific only to this type of memory.
What Causes Short-Term Memory Loss?
Drugs that Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is well-known for its role in memory. Scopolamine hydrobromide, a drug that blocks acetylcholine, produced dementia-like deficits in short-term memory in both young and elderly people .
In a study involving 72 social drinkers, alcohol-impaired working memory by interfering with memory rehearsal .
Benzodiazepines, a class of drugs also commonly known as “tranquilizers,” may prevent the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory .
Psychological Conditions that Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
While depression is primarily thought of as a mood disorder, it can also have significant cognitive symptoms as well. For example, 25 patients with depression demonstrated impairments in short-term memory and attention .
A series of studies in schizophrenia patients showed limitations in their short-term memory capacity .
A study with 32 generalized anxiety disorder patients and 34 panic disorder patients showed an impairment in their short-term memory and attention .
A study showed that patients with bipolar disorder have impairments in short-term memory (likely due to lower cognitive processing speed and problems with attention) .
Neurological Disorders that Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
Patients with fibromyalgia often suffer from deficits in working memory that mimic the effects of being 20 years older. However, it is unclear whether this is due to problems in the brain itself or if this is because they are easily distracted due to chronic pain .
A study involving 531 patients with multiple sclerosis showed a significant decrease in episodic and verbal short-term memory .
Other Diseases that Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
High blood pressure (hypertension) has also been found to interfere with short-term memory, possibly because it causes irregularities in the brain’s blood supply. For example, a study involving children aged 6 to 16 showed that those with high blood pressure performed worse on short-term memory, attention, and concentration tasks [25, 26].
Similarly, a study of 20 adults with elevated blood pressure reported significant impairments in short-term memory and learning ability when compared to healthy adults .
People who suffered multiple head injuries, such as athletes or military veterans, can develop a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A common symptom of CTE is short-term memory loss .
Twenty stroke patients demonstrated a deficit in short-term memory involving hearing (auditory memory), which can impair their ability to process language and music .
When left untreated, the STD syphilis can spread to the brain and cause dementia (a condition known as neurosyphilis), which often leads to significant impairments in short-term memory .
Stress Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
Rats exposed to different types of stress (restriction of movement, loud noises, and cold temperatures) all showed significant impairments in their short-term memory .
Aging Can Cause Short-Term Memory Loss
Additionally, a study with over 55,000 participants demonstrated that there is an extremely steep drop off in visual working memory after the age of 20 .
How to Improve Short-Term Memory
Drugs that Can Improve Short-Term Memory
While many drugs can impair short-term memory, some can actually enhance it.
Nicotine, despite its addictive properties, can temporarily boost short-term memory .
Modafinil improved verbal and short-term memory in 60 healthy young adults (DB-PCT). It also improved short-term memory in 20 adults with ADHD (DB-RCT), showing that it can enhance memory abilities in people with or without attention difficulties [45, 46].
Drugs mimicking vasopressin have been noted to greatly enhance short-term memory in healthy male volunteers .
Medical Techniques for Improving Short-Term Memory
Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (TACS) is a technique that runs low levels of electrical current through the scalp in order to stimulate certain parts of the brain (cortex). TACS was found to increase short-term memory capacity in 17 healthy humans .
Neurofeedback training (NFB) is another modern technology used to enhance memory and other mental processes. In NFB training, people are hooked up to devices that measure and visualize their brain activity in real time and are trained to learn how to indirectly control their brain activity to improve various aspects of health and mental function.
Similarly, a study specifically in older healthy people found that working memory and executive function could be improved with neurofeedback training. This indicates that neurofeedback may help reverse memory impairments that happen as a result of aging .
Finally, neurofeedback also enhanced short-term and long-term memory in stroke patients, indicating that neurofeedback can boost memory abilities in both healthy people and brain injury patients .
Supplements for Enhancing Short-Term Memory
One of the most popular ways to boost memory (and other mental functions) is to take nootropic supplements. Many different memory-enhancing nootropics are available and many users of these products report significant benefits.
For example, piracetam, one of the most popular nootropic supplements, increased short-term memory in 60 dyslexic children over 12 weeks .
For patients who underwent cardiac bypass surgery, piracetam improved attention and verbal and nonverbal short-term memory .
In 60 healthy elderly adults, curcumin significantly enhanced working memory after consistent use for 4 weeks. It was also beneficial to working memory in the short-term, with improvements seen only an hour after taking curcumin .
Activities for Improving Short-Term Memory
Here are some activities and tricks you can do on your own to improve short-term memory.
Playing action video games is associated with increased visual short-term memory .
For young male adults, playing action video games improved how quickly what you see (visual information) gets transferred to visual short-term memory .
Performing cognitive tests like working memory training can also enhance visual short-term memory .
For seniors, keeping your brain stimulated by doing crossword puzzles can also help with working memory, although not significantly .
Older adults may benefit from laughing or being amused. A test used to measure short-term memory and other cognitive functions showed improvements for those who watched a comedy video (likely by lowering the stress hormone cortisol) .
Mental Techniques for Improving Short-Term Memory
Using certain memorization strategies (mnemonic devices) such as mental imagery helps boost short-term and working memory in both young and older adults. Mental imagery refers to creating an image in your mind for a word or concept that you are trying to remember .
Other examples of helpful mnemonic devices could include using acronyms or rhyming words to remember important details or associating new information with unique personal memories.
“Chunking” is another useful mental strategy that can increase the storage of short-term memory. This refers to combining separate pieces of information together into a meaningful group. For example, the numbers 1, 7, 7, 6, 1, 8, 1, and 2 might be more easily recalled if “chunked” into the years 1776 and 1812 .
Limitations and Caveats
It is important to remember that although some substances and procedures have worked to help with memory in certain situations, your personal experience may not be the same. Some studies have only looked at animal models or specific conditions, and there are many different factors that are involved in short-term memory.
When I think about my personal experiences when it comes to short-term memory, by far the most important factor is sleep. If I get 6 hours of sleep or less, I often find myself losing my train of thought or forgetting what the other person just said during a conversation. The difference between getting less than 6 hours of sleep versus at least 8 is extraordinary. I am much more attentive, productive, and focused after a good night’s sleep, and I believe this has a lot to do with well functioning short-term memory.
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