Ho-Ho-No…. Can’t remember what’s on your holiday shopping list? You’re not alone, even Santa has to check his list twice!
But, if you are having trouble remembering ingredients from the festive cookie recipe you just read, you may be dealing with short-term memory loss.
What is short-term memory loss?
You can think of short-term memory, also called working memory, as your brain’s version of a sticky note. It helps you remember that witty comment you want to make when your boss is done talking at the company holiday party; it helps you temporarily memorize Karen’s dream gift until you have a chance to jot it down. This kind of information disappears quickly unless you make a point to remember it.
Short term memory loss symptoms range based on the severity of your forgetfulness. Here are some memory loss signs that are considered “mild”:
- Misplacing common objects. Keys, where are you?!
- Not being able to come up with the right word to say, but it’s on the tip of your tongue.
- Walking into a room and not remembering why. (The easiest way to get lost in the pantry.)
Experiencing any of these symptoms? Don’t jump to the worst case scenario just yet. While problems with short term memory can be the first sign of Alzheimer’s, this may not be the case. More likely, an unhealthy modern lifestyle is to blame. However, if you are experiencing more severe symptoms of memory loss, it may be time to talk to your doctor.
When it comes to short-term memory problems, all is not lost. Some simple lifestyle changes may be all your brain needs to get back on track. Fear not – we aren’t suggesting any extreme changes (nearly impossible during the holiday season!). Instead, try focusing on two of the biggest culprits that specifically affect short-term memory: Stress and lack of sleep.
Overcoming short-term memory loss
High stress levels is one of your brain’s worst enemies. Chronic stress can literally shrink your brain, kill brain cells, and alter your neural network connections. This leads to short-term memory loss, which becomes especially pronounced as we age1.
Want to minimize stress in your life? It’s easier than you might think, because stress mostly comes from your thoughts about stressful events, not the events themselves. Mind-body relaxation, physical exercise, and clean eating can help you keep stress at bay. Check out our blog post on chronic stress for more details!
Lack of Sleep
Your brain is hard at work while you sleep, busy cleaning out debris2, making repairs, and consolidating memories3. Sleep deprivation sharply decreases the amount of information that can be held in short-term memory. In contrast, research shows that a rested and resilient brain performs better and is better able to regulate emotions and think creatively.
An easy way to give your brain a short-term memory boost? Get a good night’s sleep! And if having enough time to sleep is a challenge for you, try a nap. Taking a 20-minute snooze is a power boost for your brain, just like plugging in your phone battery. Hence, Google nap pods.
Quick fix memory tricks
In need of a quick fix? Try these memory tips to help you retain new information and get through the holiday season – without checking your list twice.
- Do one thing at a time. Believe it or not, the brain is literally incapable of multi-tasking. Instead, it switches rapidly between tasks. Giving your brain only one thing to focus on will help you remember that gift list.
- Say it out loud. If you are worried about remembering an important name, fact, or number for later, try saying it out loud. And good news – it doesn’t even matter if you vocalize the word, it only has to be mouthed4.
- Be mindful. The act of mindfulness is being purposefully conscious of something. To master fully, it takes dedication. But for a quick short-term memory trick, try concentrating on what you are doing now. You can worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
- Avoid distractions. Short-term memory is a fragile thing and an intention can be easily lost if you give your brain the opportunity to be distracted. If a full trash bin distracts you on your way to the pantry, you’re more likely to forget why you’re in there. Keep your eye on the prize!
- Chunk the information. “Chunking” is grouping information together into smaller, more memorable bits. This is the reason why phone numbers are written with dashes!
- Write it down. Writing something by hand takes concentration, so this is a great way to make your brain maintain focus on one thing, and one thing only. But don’t take a shortcut with typing – the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to boosting short-term memory5.
- Take a walk. Refresh your brain with a quick exercise break. Physical activity does wonders, and you don’t have to run a marathon to see a difference. Even a quick stroll in the park can help.
- Drink some coffee (but don’t overdo it!). A shot of caffeine can help boost your short-term memory and reaction time. And, research suggests that a cup of coffee could even help women ward off dementia6. Peppermint mocha lovers rejoice!
1 Repeated stress causes cognitive impairment by supressing glutamate receptor expression and function in prefrontal cortex. Yuen, E Y, et al. 5, 2012, Neuron, Vol. 73, pp. 962-977.
2 Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Xie, L, et al. 6156, 2013, Science, Vol. 342, pp. 373-377.
3 Beta-amyloid disrupts human NREM slow waves and related hippocampus-dependent memory consolidation. Mander, B A, et al. 7, 2105, Nature Neuroscience, Vol. 18, pp. 1051-1060.
4 The production effect: Delineation of a phenomenon. MacLeod, C M, et al. 3, 2010, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 36, pp. 671-685.
5 The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Mueller, P A and Oppenheimer, D M. 6, 2014, Phychological Science, Vol. 25, pp. 1159-1168.
6 Relationships Between Caffeine Intake and Risk for Probable Dementia or Global Cognitive Impairment: The Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Driscoll, I, et al. 2016, The Journals of Gerontology.
Morgan Ingemanson is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine studying neurobiology. She specializes in functional neuroimaging and has been investigating the use of robotic devices for rehabilitating motor function after stroke. She is interested in mapping CNS repair and developing therapeutic interventions for neurorecovery.