Short-term memory loss is when you forget things you heard, saw, or did recently. It’s a normal part of getting older for many people. But it can also be a sign of a deeper problem, such as dementia, a brain injury, or a mental health issue.
Short-term memory is how your brain stores small amounts of information it’s just taken in. To scientists, short-term memory is often divided between working memory and short-term memory. People typically talk about short-term memory without making such distinctions.
In general, short-term memory loss involves forgetting recent things. This can lead to:
- asking the same questions repeatedly
- forgetting where you just put something
- forgetting recent events
- forgetting something you saw or read recently
First, your doctor will ask you questions about your memory loss, such as how long you’ve had it, your symptoms, and ways you’ve tried to deal with the memory loss.
They’ll also ask you about:
- your general health and lifestyle
- any recent injuries or illnesses
- medications you take
- how much you drink alcohol
- how you’ve been feeling emotionally
- diet and sleep habits
Next, they’ll do a general physical exam to check for any potential medical issues. They might order blood tests to check for other conditions, such as vitamin deficiencies or infection, that might help explain your symptoms.
Your doctor may recommend you have brain scans such as MRI or CT scan to see if there’s a physical cause for your memory loss.
Your doctor might also do cognitive tests to examine your memory issues more closely. These tests may involve:
- testing your attention span by seeing how well you can complete a thought or task
- asking basic questions, such as what the date is and where you live
- having you do basic math and spelling
- asking you to go through what you might do in certain scenarios, such as if you found a wallet on the ground, to test your problem-solving skills
- talking to you about recent events
Depending on what they think might be causing your memory loss, your doctor might refer you to a specialist, such as a psychologist, for additional memory and cognitive testing.
There are many potential causes of short-term memory loss. They include:
- dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia
- brain tumors
- blood clots or bleeding in your brain
- head injuries, such as concussions
- infections in or around your brain
- mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety
- substance use disorder
- illnesses or conditions that damage brain tissue, such as Parkinson’s disease or Huntington’s disease
- not having enough of certain vitamins or minerals, most commonly B-12, in your body
- inadequate sleep
- certain medications, including statins, anxiety medication, and antiseizure drugs
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
In some cases, doctors don’t know the cause of short-term memory loss. Some causes of short-term memory loss are progressive, which means they get worse over time and may lead to long-term memory loss. These causes include dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. There are no cures for these diseases, but some treatments may help improve some symptoms.
Treatment for short-term memory loss depends on the underlying cause. Some potential treatments include:
- surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for brain tumors
- medication to treat blood clots or, in some cases, surgery to treat bleeding in your brain
- cognitive therapy for such conditions as head injury
- therapy or medication for mental health conditions
- switching medications
- nutritional supplements
- rehab or other support for substance use disorder
There’s no cure for some causes of short-term memory loss, including dementia from Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
However, there are medications that may help to slow progression and ease your symptoms, including short-term memory loss.
In many cases, your short-term memory loss will improve when the underlying cause is treated. For some of these causes — such as blood clots or bleeding — it’s important to get treated early to avoid permanent damage.
Some treatments will work immediately, such as switching medications or taking supplements. Others, such as treatment for mental health issues or substance use, might take longer. Short-term memory loss from injuries may or may not be permanent.
You might have heard that certain vitamin supplements can help improve your short-term memory. However, even though these supplements are safe, there’s conflicting research on whether they help memory loss.
In some cases, they can be helpful. For example, a B-12 supplement may help if your short-term memory loss is caused by a B-12 deficiency.
Otherwise, there’s mixed evidence for how well other supplements work for memory loss. For example, ginkgo biloba is a popular supplement for memory and concentration issues. But a review of 36 studies found that while the supplement is safe, its effects on dementia or other cognitive impairments is inconsistent and unreliable.
Fish oil is another supplement you may have heard helps memory. A Cochrane review found that fish oil doesn’t have any significant cognitive benefits for healthy older adults. However, they suggested that more research should be done on this topic.
Curcumin, which is extracted from turmeric, has been said to help improve cognitive function, including memory.
A review of curcumin’s effect on people with Alzheimer’s disease found that there’s some evidence that curcumin positively affects some of the pathways affected by Alzheimer’s disease. However, the researchers found that more research is needed to say definitively if curcumin can help memory problems.
Even if supplements aren’t effective in treating short-term memory loss, there are some lifestyle modifications you can try, including:
- getting a good night’s sleep
- exercising regularly
- eating healthy foods, including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats
- doing puzzles and other activities that challenge your brain
- eliminating clutter around your house to help reduce distractions
- creating to-do lists and schedules to help you stay on track
The main risks of short-term memory loss are from the underlying conditions, rather than the memory loss itself. However, if it becomes severe, short-term memory loss can make it difficult for you to live alone without daily help. It can impact your ability to:
- care for yourself
- take medications safely
Treatments for short-term memory loss are generally safe. Surgery and medication always come with risks of side effects, but those are less likely when you’re under the care of an experienced doctor.
If you’re concerned about your short-term memory loss, you should ask your doctor about it, especially as you age.
If your memory loss and its symptoms interfere with your daily life, or if you have other symptoms of potential causes, you should definitely see your doctor.
Short-term memory loss is a normal part of aging for many people, but this type of memory loss generally doesn’t create any problems with living or functioning independently.
However, it can also be a sign of a more serious problem, including dementia, a brain injury or infection, or other conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
Many of these potential underlying conditions can be treated, especially if caught early. If your short-term memory interferes with your life or you have other symptoms, talk to your doctor.