What Is Short-Term Memory and How Is It Affected by Alzheimer's?

Short-Term Memory
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What Is Short-Term Memory?

Short-term memory is thought of as the brief period of time that you can recall information that you were just exposed to. For example, after hearing a phone number and repeating it a couple of times, you may be able to remember it long enough to dial it accurately. In five minutes, however, it’s unlikely that you can recall that phone number.

Capacity of Short-Term Memory

Our short-term memories usually hold between 5-9 items of information.

This capacity can be extended by using memory strategies, such as chunking information or attaching meaning to it. You can also hold information indefinitely in your short-term by rehearsing it (repeating it over and over), which may result in it eventually being transferred over to your long-term memory as well.

Clinicians' Definition of Short-Term Memory

Some people, including doctors and psychologists, may define short-term memory more in hours, days or weeks. For example, if it’s late afternoon and you can’t recall what you ate for breakfast or you forgot that you went to the doctor four days ago, your physician may call that "short-term memory impairment."

Technically, information from a few hours ago better fits into the term intermediate memory: the time period that bridges the gap of approximately a few minutes and extends into a day or two.

However, that term is used with far less frequency.

How Is Short-Term Memory Affected by Alzheimer's Disease?

Short-term memory impairment is one of the earlier symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. It can cause people to forget the question they just asked or where they set their glasses down.

Repetition of questions and behaviors is often a result of short-term memory impairment in dementia.

Other Causes of Short-Term Memory Impairment

It's normal to be concerned if you experience an occasional memory lapse, but you can rest reassured that not all short-term memory problems are a sign of Alzheimer's. There are also some benign reasons your memory might be less than stellar, such as when you're juggling too much in life. Memory can be inhibited by one or more of the following:


If you notice a persistent problem with your short-term memory, or someone else has identified this as a concern, you should seek an evaluation to determine the cause and appropriate treatment.

If it's related to a reversible condition, you'll be able to address the cause and improve the symptoms. If it's caused by a dementia like Alzheimer's, early treatment has thus far been the most effective in maintaining cognitive functioning, and can help you cope with that new diagnosis.


The Newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University. Glossary. Accessed January 27, 2012. http://www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/memory.html

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