Health Care and Short Term Memory Loss

- May 22, 2014
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There’s a long standing joke about people who can’t remember where they put their keys, or what they were supposed to buy at the grocery store, or where they parked their car at the shopping mall, or what instructions to follow:

Two men met on the city street in the evening, and had a number of drinks together. The one who lived in the suburbs became confidential, and exhibited a string tied around a finger.

"I don't dare to go home," he explained. "There's something my wife told me to do, without fail, and to make sure I wouldn't forget, she tied that string around my finger. But for the life of me I can't remember what the thing was I am to do. And I don't dare to go home!"

A few days later the two men met again, this time in the afternoon. "Well," the one asked, "did you finally remember what that string was to remind you of?" The other showed great gloom in his expression, as he replied:

"I didn't go home until the next night, just because I was scared, and then my wife told me what the string was for all right--she certainly did!" There was a note of pain in his voice. "The string was to remind me to be sure to come home early."

You might laugh at such a silly story, but the actual truth is that short term memory loss, beyond just being an inconvenience or temporarily embarrassing, can be a problem for many people—especially if it persists or gets worse. It can be dangerous, and may be a precursor of more problematic health issues such as alzheimer’s or dementia. Short-term memory loss can be a natural side effect of aging, or can be caused by disease, injury, stress, or as a side effect of drug use.

You have difficulty concentrating or it feels like your short-term memory isn’t as good as it used to be. You may also notice that normal tasks seem hard to focus on, you are more forgetful, you forget things that you normally wouldn’t, or you have difficulty forming thoughts or carrying on conversations.

You may also start something and uncharacteristically forget what you were doing soon after. You may also have difficulty remembering where you placed things, who you just called, what you just talked about, or what you were looking for or thinking about. You uncharacteristically may have difficulty remembering what you just ate, phone numbers, names, or things you recently did. Things that you would normally not forget, you now do.

According to a report issued by Rutgers University, short-term memory refers to memories which last for a few minutes. Unlike sensory memory, which is stored in the exact form it was experienced, short-term memory has received some processing; thus, "A" is stored not as a visual stimulus, but as an abstract concept of the letter "A". Short-term memory is of limited capacity, usually 5-9 items ("7-plus-or-minus-two"). Beyond this capacity, new information can "bump" out other items from short-term memory. This is one form of forgetting.

Objects in short-term memory can be of indefinite complexity: thus short-term memory can hold several numbers, or several words, or several complex concepts simultaneously. Thus, while an individual may only be able to remember seven random digits, it may be possible to remember more digits if they are "chunked" into meaningful objects: thus, "1776-2001-1941" represents twelve separate digits -- well beyond most people's capacity -- but only three easily-remembered chunks.

Items can be maintained indefinitely in short-term memory by rehearsal: e.g. by repeating the information over and over again. An example would be a seven-digit phone number, which is maintained in short-term memory by repetition until the number is dialed, and then fades from short-term memory once the conversation starts. Repetition may also increase the probability that items in short-term memory will enter permanent storage in long-term memory. More details about how your memory works can be found at this website: .

When testing for any type of memory loss, a doctor will take a 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, according to

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 is related to a psychological trauma, a therapist or psychologist may be consulted.

One of the most common suggestions for a 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 a name, such as "Rob wore a red shirt."

Another trick 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 help improve your memory. More material on this subject can be found at this site:

And did you know chewing gum impairs short term memory? According to Prevention Magazine, a study out of Cardiff University in the UK found that not only does chewing gum not help your short term memory: It impairs it.  In a series of three experiments, 97 university students were asked to recall either a short sequence of letters or identify the missing item in a list.

They performed significantly worse when chewing gum, no matter how vigorously or how lazily they chomped. Researchers speculate that the tongue, mouth, and jaw movements of gum chewing disrupt short-term memory. More info on this topic can be found at this site:

Much more detail on memory loss in general can be found at the National Institutes for Health (NIH) website:

Short term memory loss may be just a sign of being distracted or some other issues that are not really problematic. However, it could be a signal that more serious mental health problems are developing. If you are seeing this condition develop more and more in yourself or someone you know, see your doctor for testing. Don’t excuse it away, or you might forget why.

Until next time.
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