11 Causes Of Short-Term Memory Loss And What To Do About It
By: Mason Komay
Updated July 15, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
Do you ever have those moments where you seem to forget something important or trivial? When the moments that you forget outnumber the moments you remember, there may be cause for concern. There are several reasons that you may be experiencing short-term memory loss. To better understand if you have a problem and what to do about it, it's recommended that you educate yourself as much as possible before going to a professional for help.
Your memory can be divided into two main categories, short-term and long-term. Short-term memory is where information is stored temporarily, whereas long-term memory stores information for much longer periods of time. However, in order for long-term memory to form, short-term memory must be functioning properly. Your senses take in information, relay it to your short-term memory, then, if found to be important, relay it to long-term memory.
Short term memory includes things like remembering a phone number to dial it, remembering why you went into a room or remembering what you have just said in a conversation. Many people who suffer from short-term memory loss have a lot of problems, specifically within these areas.
Short-Term Memory vs. Working Memory
It is important to understand the difference between short-term memory and working memory. A working memory lasts only about 15 to 20 seconds. If deemed important and short-term memory is working properly, the information is then relayed to short-term memory. Working memory is constantly being discarded, relayed, and then replaced. If you are having problems remembering something merely a few seconds after you have been told or seen information, it can be an indication that short-term memory is not forming.
Brain Structures and Short-Term Memory
The prefrontal cortex, specifically the central executive part of this area of the brain, is primarily responsible for short-term memory. This part of the brain allows you to recall both short-term and long-term memory. However, this part of the brain is also where short-term and working memory are stored temporarily.
The Capacity of Short-Term Memory
Your short-term memory has a limited capacity. Certain studies conducted by the famous George Miller in the 1950s are often used as the guideline for determining how much capacity the short-term memory has. It is estimated that working memory can hold five to nine items at a time. However, newer studies have shown that in different age groups, the number is much lower, around four to five items.
The type and characteristics of the information also make a difference in how much can be stored in short-term memory. There have also been studies that have shown that short-term memory capacity and how long information remains in short-term memory can be increased if the information is said aloud.
What Is Short-Term Memory Loss?
Short-term memory loss can present itself in many ways. Many people have occasional problems remembering something in the short-term, but for some people, this can be debilitating. If you only have problems remembering things once in a while, you may not have cause for concern. If any of the following seem to occur on a regular basis, you may want to seek out help for a memory test and possible diagnosis.
- Walking into a room and forgetting why you went there
- Repeating yourself in conversations because you don't remember what you've said
- Forgetting what others have said soon after they said it (unable to follow conversations)
- Taking medication twice or not at all because you forget whether or not you have taken it
- Eating twice or not at all because you can't remember whether or not you have eaten
- Hanging up the phone and forgetting who you just talked to
- Dialing a phone and forgetting who you were going to call or why
- Writing a list or phone number and immediately forgetting it entirely
When these types of short-term memory problems are frequently occurring throughout the day, it can be a sign that something unusual is at hand. When short-term memory loss affects your everyday life and activities, it is time to seek out help and break the cycle.
Causes of Short-Term Memory Loss
There are many possible causes of short-term memory loss, some of which are only temporary and can be remedied. However, many of the medical conditions that cause short-term memory loss are permanent and will eventually lead to long-term memory loss as well. Short-term memory loss is often the first sign of many conditions.
A Brain Aneurysm
A brain aneurysm is a weak or bulging spot on the walls of arteries in the brain. These aneurysms do not always rupture, but when they do, they cause a pool of blood around the brain that can clot and cause mental deficiencies and kill off brain cells. This can lead to short-term and potentially long-term memory loss. Approximately 30 percent of patients with a ruptured brain aneurysm regain their short-term memory, although it can take several weeks to do so. Still, it's well within the realm of possibility.
Source: National Institutes of Public Health
A brain tumor that affects the prefrontal cortex can also affect short-term memory. If the tumor is putting pressure on the prefrontal cortex, or if it is stopping the neural pathways in that area of the brain, you may not be able to remember things short-term. You may also have difficulty recalling information from long-term memory. Sometimes removing the tumor can restore memory, which means that you at least have a fighting chance.
Amnesia is a loss of memory and can frequently be permanent. People with amnesia have poor short-term memory and have difficulty creating new memories. Amnesia can be caused by some medical conditions or injuries, including brain trauma, drug overdose, stroke, Alzheimer's, a brain infection, or severe emotional shock.
Alzheimer's And Dementia
Alzheimer's disease is a deterioration of cognitive abilities that usually starts with short-term memory loss. Other signs of Alzheimer's disease include behavioral changes such as increased aggression, mood swings, jumbled speech, loss of appetite, and an inability to combine muscle movements. Dementia is the official term for the loss of memory and confusion that is the result of Alzheimer's disease. However, dementia can occur in other patients as well, such as those with multiple strokes or other medical conditions.
Sleep apnea is a medical disorder in which you stop breathing while you sleep. There have been cases where people experienced symptoms of short-term memory loss and dementia as a result of this disorder. Some people are misdiagnosed as having early-onset Alzheimer's disease because of the symptoms that sleep apnea can cause. Essentially, the disorder causes sleep deprivation, which leads to short-term memory loss. Typically, if the patient corrects their sleep with a CPAP or similar equipment, their memory can return over time.
Silent strokes are small strokes that can happen undetected. Sometimes people have small strokes while sleeping or even while awake that are so mild that they do not exhibit any stroke symptoms at the time. However, the temporary blockage of blood vessels in the brain can cause some brain damage, including short-term memory loss. Multiple silent strokes can exacerbate these symptoms. Typically, the damage done is irreversible, although there have been cases in which improvements are made.
Many medications can affect short-term memory. You may find that if you take any of these medications for a long period, you could experience short-term memory loss. This memory loss is typically temporary, and memory function returns after the medications are no longer taken. Some examples of medications that cause short-term memory loss, according to the FDA, are:
- Sleeping pills
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Prescription painkillers, particularly opioids
- Diabetes medication
- Cholesterol medication, particularly statins
If you notice that you have developed short-term memory loss over time, make sure you write down a list of your medications and how long you have been taking them. If it is determined that the medication is to blame, other treatments may need to be considered instead.
Certain nutritional deficiencies can cause short-term memory loss. Severe deficiencies in vitamin B12 have been linked to short-term memory loss, confusion, and even leading to dementia. Usually, if you correct the deficiency and can get the right amount of B12 in your system, you should be able to regain your short-term memory. If none of the other causes in this list seem plausible, try adding a B12 or B-complex vitamin to your daily regimen and see if your memory improves.
Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Significant amounts of stress, anxiety, and severe depression can lead to short-term memory loss. Adding insult to injury, many people with these symptoms do not sleep well, adding sleep deprivation as a cause of short-term memory loss. While a mood disorder may be to blame, you may benefit from simply managing your stress and anxiety through therapy and other methods. Medications should be the last resort if you are having memory problems, as these can also cause short-term memory loss and may not remedy the root problem.
Studies have found that short-term memory loss is a common symptom of alcohol abuse.
Most alcoholics have difficulty remembering what happened while they were intoxicated. However, hangovers and other symptoms of this addiction can also contribute to daily short-term memory loss.
Typically, the damage associated with alcoholism can be reversed with long-term sobriety.
Studies have shown that short-term memory does begin to fail as we age and that retrieval of information in healthy seniors is much slower or impossible than in younger people.
There may not be much of anything wrong with you as far as medical conditions, but you could still have problems with short-term memory loss.
It could be that your short-term memory problems are simply the result of natural aging, in which case, there is little that can be done. However, this is just a natural part of life. The best thing to do in this circumstance is to try your best to come to peace with the fact that you're just getting older.
What to Do About Short-Term Memory Loss
If short-term memory loss is making it difficult for you or a loved one to function on a daily basis, it may be time to seek out help.
Going to a licensed therapist or psychologist is your first step. The mental health worker can administer a memory test to gauge the severity of the problem. Also, they may be able to administer other tests or refer you for additional tests to determine what the cause of the memory loss might be.
We’ll talk later in this article about how you can meet with a licensed and professional mental health expert from the comfort and convenience of your home at a more affordable rate than you can see these providers in person. However, first we will address some things that you can try on your own before calling in the experts.
Alcohol and medication abuse can play a significant role in your short-term memory loss. Although it might be easier said than done, sobriety is a major first step to seeing some improvement.
Please note that this is “sobriety” not “abstinence.” You don’t need to quit drinking entirely if you are able to drink responsibly. A drink or two after work or with dinner shouldn’t be enough to cause problems. However, keep in mind that even responsible amounts of alcohol can disrupt your sleep if you drink it to close to when you go to bed. Try to have your last drink at least one to two hours before you turn in.
As previously mentioned, stress, anxiety, and severe depression can lead to short-term memory loss. As a solution, try exercising a little bit each day.
Not only will this help to improve your memory, but it will also be extremely beneficial for your overall physical and mental well-being.
Switch Up Your Diet
If you have a deficiency in vitamin B12, it can lead to short-term memory loss. In this case, try eating healthier, B12-dense foods such as fish, poultry, eggs, and milk. If you have dietary restrictions that make this difficult, talk to your care provider about vitamins and supplements.
If you're ready to seek help and schedule an appointment with a therapist, consider BetterHelp.com. We provide discreet online counseling with vetted therapists who really do care about you.
Our team of licensed professionals is trained and equipped to help you deal with something as severe and complex as memory loss. You deserve to be happy - let us help.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What causes memory loss and forgetfulness?
Some degree of memory loss and forgetfulness is normal. No one remembers every aspect of daily life. And that’s okay. There are a number of reasons that this occurs, and a number of them have to do with ways in which your brain saves energy.
For example, is there a task that you do very often, or a place that you go to every day? Have you ever just started that task and suddenly it has been completed? Or do you ever get in the car and it seems like you arrive at your destination instantaneously? This occurs when your brain “automates” tasks that have become habit for you.
However, more problematic cases of memory loss can be caused by other circumstances like those discussed in the main body of the article. If you are concerned by your “brain fog” or memory loss, your doctor can help you determine whether it’s normal and natural or problematic and unhealthy.
How can I improve my short term memory?
Like anything else, the best way to improve short term memory is to use it. When you think that your brain might be on “autopilot” try to stay in the moment by actively trying to remember things, even if they seem trivial.
There are also a number of apps and memory games that you can explore as a way to turn improving your short term memory into a fun game. Some experts even believe that doing activities like this may help to prevent memory loss as you get older, but the jury is still out on that.
What is the best supplement for short term memory loss?
Fish oil pills are a classic supplement not just for short term memory but for general brain health. That’s because fish is high in B vitamins.
If you really can’t stomach fish or other foods in which B vitamins naturally occur, you can talk to your care provider about the most reliable supplement brands. However, many dieticians believe that you are better off getting your vitamins from your diet than you are getting them from pills.
What are the symptoms of memory loss?
I don’t remember.
That was a joke; but, in all seriousness, how do you know that you’ve forgotten something? It’s a tricky question.
In some ways, this is a good thing because it prevents us from constantly being worried about all of the things that we normally and naturally forget. If you don’t notice that your short term memory loss is causing problems for you, that’s probably because it isn’t.
However, the degree of memory loss depends on the cause – as does your ability to recognize that it’s happening at all. Sometimes, we don’t notice the symptoms of memory loss – instead they’re pointed out to us by someone close to us. This is particularly the case for elderly people experiencing short term memory loss as a symptom of conditions like dementia.
This is one of the many reasons that maintaining close personal relationships is so important for your mental health.
Is there any medication for short term memory loss?
A theme throughout this article has been that there are many different potential causes of memory loss. There’s no pill for restoring memory, and once short term memories are gone they’re gone – even if your short term memory recovers.
However, depending on the cause of your short term memory loss, some medications can make it stronger or prevent it from getting worse. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for short term memory loss resulting from things like head injuries.
There are some vitamins and supplements that show promise. However, you should always talk with your doctor before starting vitamin and supplement regiments. They can provide you to the best options by the most trusted providers. Further, some vitamins and supplements are concentrated enough to interfere with other medications that you may be on.
What is the best vitamin for memory loss?
Vitamin B, specifically B12, is specifically associated with memory loss and not having enough in your diet can cause or exacerbate the problem.
If you think that a B vitamin shortage might be causing or exacerbating your short term memory loss, talk to your primary care provider. He or she can tell you which vitamin brands to trust, or help you incorporate more vitamin B-rich foods into your diet.
Can short term memory loss be cured?
Short term memory loss can’t be “cured” because it is a symptom rather than a condition. “Memory loss treatment” tends to take the form of treatment for the underlying condition.
If you’re worried about memory loss, present it to your primary care provider. They may be able to provide diagnosis or treatment for the underlying condition, which will hopefully result in the “curing” of your short term memory.
Why am I losing my short term memory?
There are a number of conditions that can cause short term memory loss – and some degree of short term memory loss is even expected for healthy people.
For medical advice, diagnosis, and potential memory loss treatment, bring your concerns to your care provider – particularly if your short term memory loss interferes with your daily life.
Can anxiety cause short term memory loss?
Anxiety – as well as depression or other emotional trauma – can cause short term memory loss. This is particularly true when these conditions impact your sleep quality or if you “self-medicate” with alcohol and other substances.
If you think that anxiety or another mental and emotional health issue is causing your short term memory, talk to your primary care provider and/or seek help from a mental health expert. Even if they don’t give you a diagnosis and medication, they can help you find ways to manage your emotions to maximize your quality of life.
Is short term memory loss permanent?
Again, once you lose something from your short term memory, it’s gone for good. As for continuing memory loss, whether it’s permanent depends on the cause.
Short term memory loss caused by brain damage can be permanent. Short term memory loss from other complications can be extremely short lived. For example, if short term memory loss is a side effect of a medication that you are on, your short term memory will usually return if you stop that medication or have the dosage adjusted.
Never quit or adjust dosage on medications yourself. If you think that your short term memory loss might be because of a medication that you are taking, talk to the prescribing physician so that they can make the adjustments for you.
How long does short term memory loss last?
That depends on the cause. As discussed above, short term memory loss as a side effect of medication can go away almost as soon as your prescribing physician ends or adjusts the dosage.
Short term memory loss from health complications that have affected blood flow to the brain, like a stroke, can return to normal – or nearly normal – though it may take months or years.
Unfortunately, if brain tissue has died because of a stroke that went too long without treatment or because of a traumatic brain injury is often permanent.
Does short term memory get worse with age?
Unfortunately, it does. The good news is that healthy people “outlive” their memory.
If your loss of short term memory is occasionally frustrating or annoying, it might just be part of getting older. However, if your short term memory prevents you from leading a happy and healthy life, it could be the result of an unhealthy condition like dementia.
While there aren’t any cures for dementia yet, working with healthcare professionals can slow the progression of these conditions to give you more time and to help you to enjoy that time more.
You don't have to be trapped living a life in which you can't seem to remember anything.
There are several small yet significant steps that can help you begin to see some improvement, such as sobriety, exercise, and switching up your diet. If nothing else seems to work, professional care is right around the corner. You can take the first step today.