Short-term memory is the type of memory that holds onto information while we process it.
For example, while reading, we need to be able to remember the information at the beginning of a sentence in order to make sense of it once we get to the end. Short-term memory is what does this for us. It tends to last about ten to fifteen seconds (sometimes longer) and consists of about seven items (the length of a phone number or the days of the week). If you’re curious how you measure up, you can test your recall of here. I made it to level eight and I’m admittedly not a “numbers person”.
Why is Short-Term Memory Important?
Short-term memory affects many of the brain’s most important and superior cognitive processes thus, is essential for good cognitive function. Short-term memory directly affects our abilities to:
- Imprint information into long-term memory
- effectively communicate with others
- learn and store new information
- accurately carry out movements (motor skills)
- recalling or retrieving information previous learned
Short-Term Memory Loss
Can’t remember why you walked into the kitchen or where you left your keys? These lapses in memory happen to many of us at all different stages of our lives. In the aging brain, they occur more frequently. However, when incidents like this increase suddenly, or become so severe that they we cannot complete everyday tasks safely, short-term memory loss may become a bigger concern. Causes of short-term memory loss include:
- side effects of medication (or toxicity)
- emotional trauma
- brain injuries
- Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
- various types of amnesias
Strategies to Improve Short-Term Memory Function
The best way we can preserve our memory function as we age, or rehabilitate our memory function after decline, is by exercising our brains in specific ways. Targeting specific functions of the brain to improve memory isn’t neuroscience. Actually it is, but it’s easier than you think! Here are some ways you can get started:
- Read out loud text or verses from your favorite book or practice singing using Forbrain. Repetitive use of your voice exercises and trains your brain. These repetitive exercises tap into areas of the Cochlea, which connect through the auditory pathways to your verbal and short-term memory. When you speak or read aloud using the Forbrain system, your own voice activates these auditory pathways in your brain enabling you to access memory more easily. Daily use of Forbrain supports improved memory.
- Board games that focus on using memorization or matching can be fun and effective ways to exercise your short-term memory. Remember playing the game “Memory” or “Concentration” as a child? LDM Enterprises has bumped it up a notch with their addictive game for ages 6+ called Recall.
- There are hundreds of applications that include games focused on improving short-term memory like Lumosity, A Clockwork Brain, and Music Memory, to name a few.
- Other games proven to preserve memory function and ward off short-term memory loss include crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and jigsaw puzzles.
- Games with numbers are particularly helpful in preserving short-term memory. counting games and math games (or just performing mathematical equations in your head) can be immensely beneficial. As I already mentioned, Sudoku is a great brain-boosting activity to keep your short-term memory functioning well and it’s endorsed by the American Alzheimer’s Association.
Memory Strategies for Every day Life
You don’t need special equipment to exercise and strengthen your memory. Some of the best work we can do to improve short-term memory is functional. That is to say, it’s embedded in the tasks we do in our everyday lives. The following exercises can be easily assimilated to your everyday routine:
- Memorize your grocery list and leave it in your bag while you’re shopping.
- At the end of the day try to recall the day’s events from the moment you woke up until the time you went to bed. Did you miss anything important?
- Concentrate on one task at a time. Attention directly affects memory and the best way to remember something is to focus on it.
- Use mnemonics to remember lists. Mnemonics are tools that help us remember related bits of information. There are different types of mnemonics like:
- Acronyms: Super Heroes Must Eat Oats (Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Eerie, Lake Ontario)
- Chunking: Longer strings of information is broken up into smaller “chunks” like the format of phone numbers (xxx-xxxx)
- Visualization: Using a symbol or a “scene” to represent information (visualizing the last place you were when you had your keys, or a hairbrush to represent an appointment at the salon)
Surprising Ways to Improve Memory
- Meditate. Meditation helps control certain brain functions that help filter out distractions and create an improved environment for memory function. The Harvard Gazette published an article discussing the direct link between meditation and improved cognition here.
- Change your routine. Small changes such as switching around your morning routine, sitting in a different spot at the dinner table, or driving a different route to work can give your brain the challenge it needs to grow, positively affecting your memory.
- Sleep well, and sleep at night. Experts recommend getting an average of 7-9 hours of sleep each night for optimal cognitive performance. And exactly when you sleep matters. Studies of people who work different shifts have shown that those who are on an evening or night shift schedule suffer cognitive losses that aren’t found in daytime workers.
- Eat Fish. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are two types of Omega-3 fatty acids that can improve memory function and slow the decline. Eating fish may not be enough, so there are fish oil supplements that can help you get the DHA & EPA that you need. Speak to your health care professional before beginning any supplement regimen.
- Exercise. Exercise has been shown to improve overall cognitive ability as well as spatial memory (remembering what position our body is in and where). This has a positive effect on memory and has can also help prevent memory decline. Regular exercise can be as easy as a 60-minute walk two times per week. Read more from Harvard Health here.
Participating in activities that help stimulate specific short-term memory functions or improve overall cognition are necessary to optimize our brain’s abilities throughout our lives. From childhood and early learning processes, to old age and the onset of cognitive decline, the spectrum of our cognitive needs changes. One thing remains the same, though: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.