Short-term memory loss: Misconceptions and facts
It’s a prevalent problem, but there are a lot of misconceptions about short-term memory loss and what causes it.
Short-term memory, or working memory, refers to the process of “temporarily storing small bits of information for a very short amount of time,” such as around 15 to 30 seconds. Working memory functions as the brain’s version of “sticky notes.”
You use your short-term memory to temporarily remember a phone number until you save it on your phone or to recall the name of someone you just met. However, this kind of information quickly disappears, at least until you try to remember it.
Short-term memory also acts as a filter that determines what’s important enough to remember and what you can forget. This ability to discard useless information is crucial to ensuring that the brain doesn’t get overwhelmed.
What is short-term memory capacity?
Short-term memory capacity refers to how many pieces of information the brain can retain at a time. According to “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” one of the most highly cited papers in psychology, humans can store seven pieces of information via short-term memory, give or take two.
However, the study, which was authored by the American psychologist George Armitage Miller, is now over 50 years old. In brain science terms, the data is now ancient.
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Findings from more recent studies have determined that the new “magic number” is lower than seven. Newer studies show that it’s “more likely that only three to five pieces of information can normally be held in working memory at any one time.”
Short-term memory loss is often used to describe forgetting recent events. However, the scientifically accepted definition of short-term memory is “the process that involves remembering bits of data for just a few seconds.” Almost all of the memories that go through the short-term memory process are filtered out and forgotten.
For this article, short-term memory will be defined as “not being able to remember things that happened recently.”
Common and serious symptoms of short-term memory loss
Having short-term memory loss doesn’t always mean that you have dementia. Some signs that short-term memory loss is still within the normal range include calling people you’ve known a long time by the wrong name or misplacing objects. These moments are only instances of mild forgetfulness.
Serious memory loss is often signified by repeatedly asking the same question or drastic personality changes.
Short-term memory loss is either a minor or major symptom of various health conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, and diseases, or stress-related disorders.
Some drugs can also cause short-term memory loss. A lot of prescription drugs can cause short-term memory loss as a side effect. Anticholinergics are a group of drugs that may trigger short-term memory loss by blocking the action of acetylcholine, the main brain chemical associated with learning and memory. Acetylcholine is also crucial for turning short-term memories into long-term ones.
Two of the worst drugs for short-term memory loss are anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) and narcotic painkillers/opioid analgesics. Lastly, recreational drugs (e.g., cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine) may cause short-term memory loss.
Lifestyle causes of short-term memory loss
Short-term memory loss may also occur due to an unhealthy lifestyle. The good thing is, you can still prevent forgetfulness by making healthier life choices.
To a certain extent, all lifestyle factors affect general brain function. But the three worst offenders, which specifically affect short-term memory, are lack of sleep, stress, and sugar consumption.
You need to get enough sleep every night to keep your brain healthy. When you’re sleep-deprived, your brain has to work harder. Sleep deprivation also affects both your long-term and short-term memories. (Related: Fight brain decay with a good night’s rest: Age-related memory loss may be caused by SLEEP issues, new study finds.)
On a normal day, you won’t have trouble remembering at least four to seven bits of information. When you’re sleep-deprived, this number can go down to one or two.
Stress also affects your memory because high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, make the brain shrink and age prematurely. This will eventually cause short-term memory loss.
The brain needs a steady supply of its main fuel, the simple sugar glucose. However, the simple carbs in the types of sugar and flour often used in processed foods push blood glucose levels into an unhealthy range. This may negatively affect short-term memory.
Consuming too many simple carbohydrates means your brain can develop insulin resistance. This type of insulin resistance is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
If you believe that your short-term memory loss symptoms are still within the normal range, making some healthy lifestyle adjustments can help. But if you believe that your symptoms are serious or you think you may have an underlying health condition, consult a healthcare professional.
Short-term memory loss is a common occurrence that may be caused by various factors. To improve your memory, you may need to make healthy choices like getting enough sleep each night or avoiding sugary foods.
You can read more articles with tips on how to prevent short-term memory loss at Mind.news.