Short-term memory loss: Definition, loss, psychology, and more – Medical News Today

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Short-term memory refers to information that people can remember for a short period of time immediately after receiving it.
People with short-term memory loss have problems remembering pieces of information they just received. Numerous physical and psychological conditions can cause short-term memory loss, and the treatment will depend on the cause.
Keep reading to learn more about what short-term memory and short-term memory loss are, including some causes of short-term memory loss, treatment options, and when to speak with a doctor.
Short-term memory refers to the memory systems in the brain involved in remembering pieces of information for a short period of time, often up to 30 seconds. Short-term memory creates a kind of “visuospatial” sketch of information the brain has recently absorbed and will process into memories later on. By some estimates, short-term memory can hold around seven items of information at one time.
Information can move from short-term memory into long-term memory, where the brain permanently stores the information for future recall when necessary. Long-term memory does not seem to have a specific limit or maximum capacity. Information held in long-term memory is usually related to how a person performs a skill, or to rules, events, facts, and concepts.
Short-term memory and working memory are sometimes thought of as the same thing, but they are not. Short-term memory is the memory systems involved in the temporary holding of pieces of information. Working memory refers to the brain processes that allow the manipulation and use of stored information.
Short-term memory loss, or short-term memory impairment, is when someone cannot retain information in the short term, or forgets information they have just received.
Sporadically forgetting pieces of new information happens to almost everyone. It is especially easy to forget new information if someone is not completely paying attention, is distracted, or does not make an effort to remember the information.
People should be aware that mild forgetfulness is also a typical part of aging. That said, when someone forgets important information frequently enough to interfere with their ability to function in daily life, they may be experiencing short-term memory loss linked to a specific health condition.
Some common signs of short-term memory loss include:
A long list of different factors and conditions can cause short-term memory loss. Some of the more common conditions associated with short-term memory loss include:
As someone ages, changes in their brain tend to slowly develop, which can make them more forgetful than they were before. But research suggests that memory loss is not an inevitable part of aging, and as someone ages, their brain actually can retain the ability to create new brain cells and form new nerve connections.
Neurodegenerative diseases cause nerves in the brain and peripheral nervous system to lose function and die over time. Many neurodegenerative diseases can cause short-term memory loss. Some of the most common neurodegenerative diseases associated with short-term memory loss include:
Many types of injury can damage brain cells and potentially cause temporary or permanent short-term memory loss.
Learn more about head injuries here.
Chronic or severe infection in the brain and other parts of the body can cause memory loss. Examples include HIV and encephalitis.
Tumors, either cancerous or benign, as well as other abnormal growths on the brain, can potentially interfere with brain functioning and impact short-term memory.
Learn more about the early signs of a brain tumor here.
A stroke or heart attack can cause brain damage by depriving the brain of oxygen.
Many medications that impact brain functioning can cause temporary memory loss as a side effect. Some medications commonly linked with memory problems include:
Not getting enough sleep can impair brain functioning. This can result in temporary short-term memory loss.
Learn more about sleep deprivation here.
Several conditions that cause chronic pain, such as some types of arthritis, can cause a series of cognitive problems known collectively as brain fog.
People with brain fog tend to be more forgetful, have a hard time learning and remembering new information, and have trouble retrieving memories correctly.
Epilepsy can make it more difficult to process information, form and store memories, and recall information.
Several other conditions can cause short-term memory loss. Less common causes of short-term memory loss include:
Some psychological conditions can cause short-term memory loss. The most common mental health conditions related to short-term memory loss include:
Many people with depression experience memory problems. In a 2018 study assessing a primarily Caribbean Hispanic, stroke-free group of older adults, more severe depression correlated with worse memory problems, smaller cerebellums, and an increased risk of brain infarcts (areas of tissue death caused by a lack of adequate blood supply).
Learn more about depression here.
People with PTSD may experience changes in their brain functioning and brain chemistry. These may impact cognitive abilities, in particular memory.
Learn more about PTSD here.
Misuse or overuse of substances such as recreational drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes can cause temporary or permanent memory loss, according to research from 2010.
People experiencing extreme, severe, or prolonged stress may also experience a reduction in their cognitive abilities, which, according to 2007 research, may include memory problems.
Treatment for short-term memory loss primarily depends on the cause.
Common treatments for short-term memory loss based on the underlying condition or cause include:
Dementia caused by irreversible neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease, requires medical and lifestyle management rather than treatment in the hope of restoring memory loss.
There is no medication approved to cure, treat, or prevent conditions that cause irreversible memory loss, though a few are available that may help manage other symptoms in people with early and mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease, such as:
Learn more here.
A new medication called aducanumab may actually slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by reducing amyloid plaques (brain lesions associated with Alzheimer’s disease) though researchers have yet to prove this effect in a clinical setting.
There are some things people can do to manage short-term memory loss and, in some cases, even help improve short-term memory.
Tips for handling short-term memory loss include the following:
Plenty of over-the-counter medications and supplements claim to boost memory or restore memory loss. But the National Institute of Aging (NIA) suggests staying away from these self-proclaimed “cures.” The NIA states that unproven memory treatments can cause health problems, waste money, and even interfere with other medications.
Learn more about ways to help improve memory here.
If memory issues start to interfere with a person’s functioning or quality of life, they should contact a doctor.
People should also contact a doctor if they are worried about their memory, or think they have more memory issues than most other people their age.
Short-term memory is a person’s ability to remember small amounts of information for a short period of time.
Short-term memory loss is sometimes a part of typical aging, but could be a symptom of several health conditions, both psychological and physical.
When short-term memory loss interferes with daily functioning or quality of life, people should contact a doctor, especially if memory loss becomes frequent or severe.
Last medically reviewed on October 5, 2021
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