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5 Major Symptoms and Causes of Short-Term Memory Loss

Updated on March 4, 2015
Your memory is incredibly important - take care of it!
Your memory is incredibly important - take care of it!


It's the stuff movies are made of - a blow to the head, a person wandering aimlessly, unable to remember who he is or where he came from. We might be all too familiar with the scene. While such sudden, profound loss of memory is rare, memory loss is a problem that affects most people to a certain extent. It's normal to become a bit forgetful as you get older. Along with aging, it is also ordinary to have some trouble learning new material, or needing more time to remember it. However, normal aging does not lead to dramatic memory loss. Such memory loss is due to other problems. Memory loss could be a symptom of something more serious and should be checked as soon as possible by a general pediatrician.

Whether it's occasional forgetfulness or loss of short-term memory that interferes with daily life, there are a lot of causes for memory loss. Sometimes, memory loss may be seen with depression. It can be hard to tell the difference between memory loss and confusion due to depression. Some types of memory loss may cause you to forget recent, new, past or remote events, or even more than one of these. You may forget memories from a single event or more than one event. Memory loss may cause you trouble when attempting to learning new information or forming new memories.

Memory loss may be temporary (transient), or permanent.

Short-term memory is the information that a person is currently thinking about or aware of. It's active information in readily available state for a short period of time. It's also called primary or active memory. Recent events and sensory data such as sounds are stored in short-term memory. Short-term memory often encompasses events over a period of anywhere between 30 seconds and several days. Because short-term memories need to be recalled for a lesser amount of time than long-term memories, the ability that the brain has to store short-term memory is limited. According to “Memory Loss & the Brain,” a newsletter from the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University, the brain can store anywhere from five to nine items. Long-term memory has much greater capacity and contains things such as facts, personal memories and the name of your fourth-grade teacher.

Different stages of memory are handled by different parts of the brain. Short-term memory primarily takes place in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Then the information makes a stopover in the hippocampus and is then transferred to the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in language and perception of permanent storage.

5 Major Causes of Short-Term Memory Loss:

There are a number of causes of short-term memory loss, some which are results of medical conditions and others are related to injuries or other outside influences. To determine the cause, your doctor or nurse will ask if the problem came on suddenly or over time. Many areas of the brain help you create and retrieve memories. A problem in any of these areas can lead to memory loss. Here are some of the most common things that can cause memory loss:

1 - Medications

A number of prescription and over-the-counter medications can interfere with or cause loss of memory. Possible culprits include: anti-depressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and pain medications given after a surgery. Ask your doctor to familiarize you with the side effects of the medication you are undertaking. Along with these drugs, alcohol abuse will also damage your memory. Excessive alcohol use has long been recognized as a cause of memory loss.

Another motive for you to quit smoking
Another motive for you to quit smoking

2 - Smoking

Smoking harms memory by reducing the amount of oxygen that the brain gets. Studies have shown that people who smoke find it more difficult to put faces with names that do nonsmokers. Illicit drugs can change chemicals in the brain that can make it hard to recall memories. A lack of oxygen to the brain can affect short-term memory. Lack of oxygen to the brain can be due to a stroke. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is stopped due to the blockage of a blood vessel to the brain or leakage of a vessel into the brain. Strokes often cause short-term memory loss. A person who has had a stroke may have vivid memories of childhood events and still be unable to recall what he or she had for lunch. When a person experiences short-term memory loss, he or she can remember incidents from 20 years ago but is fuzzy on the details of things that happened 20 minutes prior.

3 - Lack of sleep

Both quantity and quality of sleep are important to memory. Getting too little sleep or waking frequently during the night can lead to fatigue, which interferes with the ability to consolidate and retrieve information. Good nutrition—including high-quality proteins and fats—is important to proper brain function. Deficiencies in vitamin B1 and B12 specifically can affect memory. Proper diet and exercise are also very good for your brain.

Stress can really take a toll on you
Stress can really take a toll on you

4 - Stress and being depressed

Being depressed can make it difficult to pay attention and focus, which can affect memory. Stress and anxiety can also get in the way of concentration. When you are tense and your mind is overstimulated or distracted, your ability to remember can suffer. Stress caused by an emotional trauma can also lead to memory loss.

5 - Head injuries

A severe hit to the head—from a fall or automobile accident, for example—can injure the brain and cause both short- and long-term memory loss. Concussions and other trauma to the head can impact short-term memory too. Memory may gradually improve over time.

Major symptoms of short-term memory loss

When testing for any type of memory loss, a doctor will take the medical history and perhaps ask a few questions to test a patient’s memory. Other exams may include cognitive testing to check the patient’s mental status and ability to think. The doctor may also order blood tests to check for various conditions including vitamin B-12 deficiency and thyroid disease. Depending on the results, other tests may include an MRI or CT scan of the head and an EEG to measure electrical activity in the brain. A cerebral angiography may also be ordered to examine blood flow to the brain. If the cause of the short-term memory loss is related to psychological trauma, a therapist or psychologist may be consulted.

Questions usually asked by a doctor when he checks a patient’s medical history:

Aggravating or triggering factors

o Has there been a head injury in the recent past?

o Has the person experienced an event that was emotionally traumatic?

o Has there been a surgery or procedure requiring general anesthesia?

o Does the person use alcohol? How much?

o Does the person use illegal/illicit drugs? How much? What type?

• Type

o Can the person remember recent events?

o Can the person remember events further in the past?

o Is there memory loss regarding events that occurred before a specific experience?

o Is there memory loss regarding events that occurred soon after a specific experience?

o Is there only minimal memory loss?

o Does the person make up stories to cover gaps in memory?

o Is the person suffering from low moods that impair concentration?

Other symptoms

o What other symptoms does the person have?

o Is the person confused or disoriented?

o Can they independently eat, dress, and perform similar self-care activities?

o Have they had seizures?

Time pattern

o Has the memory loss been getting worse over years?

o Has the memory loss been developing over weeks or months?

o Is the memory loss present all the time or are there distinct episodes of amnesia?

o If there are amnesia episodes, how long do they last?

Improving short-term memory

One of the common suggestions for better short term memory is to use mnemonics. Mnemonics is the technique of attaching a word, phrase or image to an object. One example of a mnemonic is the trick many people learned in school to remember how many days are in a month. “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November …” You can also use the trick to remember things such as names, such as “Rob wore a red shirt.”

Another way to do it is to have someone put a number of objects out on a table. Give yourself 30 seconds to memorize them. Then take the objects away and try to write down as many as you can in 30 seconds. Doing activities that engage your brain, such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles, and reading, in general, can also improve your memory.

Do not forget that a healthy diet, proper exercise and a correct amount of rest is as good to our mental health as it is to our physical body. Consume nuts and fats from fish which is said to be good for the brain and heart. Avoid studying or making your brain do hard work when you are physically ill. You can look up on these regarding mental health which might be helpful in improving your short-term memory and to get rid of related ailments.


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