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Memory problems and tips on how to cope with them

This article contains information about memory problems, with some tips on how to cope with them.

Why do memory problems happen?

We use our memory to store and recall information. Memory problems are associated with a wide range of neurological conditions, including head injury, brain tumours and multiple sclerosis. There are many different reasons why someone may be finding it difficult to remember.

Memory difficulties due to neurological conditions occur because an area of the brain has been damaged either by a head injury or due to disease. The damage can be focal (confined to one area) or diffuse (widespread). With time, some memory problems can improve, others stay the same or may get worse.

As we get older, we may find that our memory isn’t quite as good as it used to be. Many people worry that this is a sign that they have dementia but only 1 in 5 people over the age of 80 have dementia. If you are worried that you may have dementia we recommend that you see your GP.

Your memory

You may think that you have a ‘poor memory’. However, it may only be certain types of information that you find difficult to remember. This is because our memory is made up of many different parts. For example, different parts of the brain are required to remember a telephone number, music or an appointment next week. Sometimes the information we need has been ‘stored’ in our brain but we find it difficult to recall or retrieve it, this is when people describe something as being ‘on the tip of their tongue’.

Short term and long term memory

Short term memory (also known as working memory) can only store approximately seven chunks of information. This information remains in your short term memory for approximately 20 seconds. This is what you use when trying to remember a new phone number or the name of a person that you have just met.

Long term memory can last from a minute or so to weeks or even years. This stores information such as memories of a party you went to, knowledge and facts learnt at school.

Often people refer to memory loss as amnesia. Amnesia can be temporary or permanent. The two main types of amnesia are:

Anterograde amnesia – This is when someone has difficulty remembering information events and information that have happened or they have heard since the brain injury occurred.

Retrograde amnesia – This is when someone has difficulty remembering events and information in the past, that happened or they previously knew before the brain injury occurred.

Where are our memories stored?

We use most of our brain, in some way or another, when storing and remembering information. However, certain areas appear to specialise in memory, and these areas are called the temporal and frontal lobes. (You can read more about the different parts of the brain here).

How is memory assessed?

Memory can be assessed by someone called a neuropsychologist or a clinical psychologist. Typically, you will be asked to do some tests that give a measure of ‘intelligence’ as well as tests to look at different aspects of your memory and other functions such as problem solving.

Neuropsychological assessments can help to find out where a problem is occurring, for example if you have had a head injury. They may also be used to track improvements over time, for example before, during and after rehabilitation. A neuropsychological assessment can detect early signs of dementia.

Mnemonics (ner-mon-ics)

Mnemonics are strategies that can be used to improve your memory. One popular mnemonic is ‘Richard Of York Gained Battle In Vain’ where the first letter of each word stands for a each colour in the rainbow. Mnemonics help to make information more memorable and easier to recall. Here are some other mnemonics you can try:

Association

This method is useful when trying to remember the name of a person. Ask the person to repeat their name and try to use it a few times in the conversation. You can make their name more memorable by associating it with an image or a picture. For example, if someone is called Ann Fisher associate their face with the picture of Princess Anne fishing. The more vivid or imaginative the picture is, the more likely you are to remember it.

Linking

This method is useful if you have a list of items you need to remember, for example a shopping list or people you need to visit. If you need to remember to buy a stamp, milk, a newspaper and washing up liquid you could try making up a story to link these items together. For example ‘I STAMPed my foot on the floor and a MILK bottle broke. I soaked up the mess with a NEWSPAPER and then had to wash the print off my hands using WASHING UP LIQUID. Although this seems like a lot of effort, it doesn’t take very long once you get used to doing it and it can really help.

There are a lot of different mnemonics you can use. You may need to try using a few different ones before you find the ones that works best for you. At the end of this article there are some links to where you can find out more.

What else can I do to improve my memory?

Here are some simple techniques to enhance your memory:

  • Give yourself time and keep calm.
  • Keep to a routine. Place everyday items such as car keys, money in the same place and do try to do things in the same order.
  • Write information down as possible, keep paper and pencil or stick it notes near the telephone.
  • If you need to remember to take something with you to an appointment or when you go out leave it somewhere obvious e.g., by the door, or write yourself a big note to remind you and leave it on the door.
  • Get organised. Although most people are used to keep a diary at work, you might find it helpful to have a diary at home to remind you to do something.
  • Use an alarm to help you to remember to do something in the future, for example to take something cooking out of the oven or to make a phone call.
  • Repeat back to someone important information that you need to remember. Not only will this check that you have heard the information correctly, it was also increase the chance that you will be able to recall it later.

This information was last checked in October 2012.

References

See a list of medical references that we used to research this article.