Why is my memory so bad? 6 things to do to improve it
Have you ever asked yourself the question: Why is my memory so bad? A package arrives at your door and you can’t remember ordering it. You could’ve sworn that you put your wallet on the coffee table but you can’t find it anywhere. And what was the name of the neighbor’s new puppy you just met?
Occasional memory lapses are normal and nothing to worry about. We naturally become slightly more forgetful as we age. However, if memory problems persist, there may be a more serious, underlying condition that’s causing them.
Let’s take a look at the potential causes of poor memory, how memory works, and what you can do to improve it.
What is memory?
Memory is the complex process of encoding, storing and retrieving knowledge and experiences in the brain. Our memories are an integral part of our identities: they define who we are.
Memories are created when specialized brain cells called neurons and are reactivated as a response to outside stimuli. For a memory to be encoded, it has to find its way to a specific combination of neurons that have the necessary synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity determines the ability of synapses – connections between brain cells – to change and adapt to new information.
When our brain determines which specific neurons and synapses will store a memory, the connections between our brain cells are altered. Each sensory experience that we encounter during our lifetime reshapes our synapses. Every memory makes a change to the system.
This is how we learn – we are able to remember past events, understand things happening in the present and make predictions for the future.
Memory loss occurs when there’s an impairment in the functioning of these systems.
To get closer to answering the question “Why is my memory so bad?”, let’s take a look at the different types of memory.
Different types of memory
We can distinguish between two main types of memory based on how long the information is stored.
What is short-term memory?
Short-term is a system that temporarily stores information that is essential for a brief period of time. When you meet someone new, you may be able to recall their name for a few minutes after they introduce themselves, but forget it later.
A type of short-term memory, called working memory, is used for performing a wide variety of complex cognitive tasks, like calculation and language comprehension.
For example, when trying to multiply two-digit numbers in your head, you need to remember the numbers involved, perform the calculation, and remember the answer. However, once the task is done, you no longer need to retrieve that information. It becomes irrelevant, so it’s unlikely that you’ll remember it. This doesn’t mean that your memory is bad – it’s just your brain’s way of making space for new memories. The capacity of short-term memory is limited – it can only hold about seven items at a time.
The information stored in short-term memory doesn’t always fade: in some cases, it turns into long-term memory.
What is long-term memory?
When we use the term ‘memory’ in an everyday sense – for example in a casual conversation with our friends – we’re usually referring to long-term memory.
Long-term memory is a system that stores information for extended periods of time. Some researchers believe that information stored in long-term memory never gets “deleted”, it just becomes less and less accessible. (1)
Our long-term memories can be explicit – for example, events that we can consciously recall – or implicit – for example, involving skills like riding a bike.
When you’re wondering “Why is my memory so bad?”, you are most likely worried about changes that affect your short-term memory. Maybe you’ve noticed that you occasionally forget why you opened the fridge or what your partner asked you to do.
Next, we’ll look at some of the causes and symptoms of short-term memory loss, as well as some tricks you can use to improve memory.
Why is my memory so bad? The causes of short-term memory loss
Short-term memory loss can have a variety of potential causes. Medical conditions, injuries, or poor lifestyle choices can explain why your memory is so bad.
The following circumstances may lead to poor memory:
- Head injuries, most commonly concussions
- Brain tumors
- Brain infections
- Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia
- Dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Lewy body dementia
- Parkinson’s disease or Huntington’s disease
- Excessive alcohol or drug use
- Vitamin deficiencies, most commonly vitamin B12
- Medications like antidepressants and sleeping pills
- Lack of sleep
Short-term memory loss symptoms
In most cases, memory changes are caused by something temporary and reversible. As long as they don’t interfere with your day-to-day life, there’s no need to worry.
However, if you are experiencing the following symptoms and they are extremely persistent, please consult a medical professional. They will help you find an answer to why your memory is so bad.
- Asking the same questions over and over again, without remembering that you’ve asked them before
- Often misplacing things
- Failing to recall recent events, things you recently saw or read
- Having trouble completing tasks, doing chores or work
How to improve short-term memory
If you’re experiencing some memory lapses within the normal range, there are steps you can take to train your brain and improve your short-term memory.
1. Play brain games
Cognitive exercises and brain training games are a great way to boost your short-term memory. Repeating certain cognitive tasks improves the brain’s ability to perform them because it stimulates neurons to regenerate and form new connections.
Traditional brain games like crosswords, puzzles, card games, and chess have been around for a long time. Nowadays, it’s also common to play digital brain games that have been scientifically proven to improve short-term memory skills.
The best digital brain games are designed to adapt to each individual’s cognitive strengths and areas of improvement, making it possible to train your ability to store and recall information. Not only are these games scientifically validated, but they can also be lots of fun!
2. Exercise regularly
There’s a lot to say in favor of regular exercise when it comes to cognitive health and memory.
New research presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society shows that even a single workout session can boost your memory. (2) What’s more, the immediate cognitive effects of exercise accumulate in the long term.
The timing of your workout session may matter, too. Another study published in Current Biology found that a group who exercised four hours after learning retained information better than other groups who exercised immediately after learning or did not exercise at all. (3)
So if you often wonder why your memory is so bad, try finding a form of exercise you enjoy and see if moving your body makes a difference.
3. Get enough sleep
The relationship between sleep and memory is a widely researched topic in neurology, psychology, and cognitive sciences.
Sleep is thought to play an important role in brain plasticity: the brain’s ability to undergo modifications and assimilate new information. (4) Current data suggests that both Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep states contribute to brain development.
Sleep has also been shown to enhance memory processes: different stages of the sleep cycle may be responsible for enhancing different types of memories.
To put it simply, the better you sleep, the better your memory.
4. Keep your nutrition in check
Our dietary choices can also influence our brain health and memory. Consuming an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables has many benefits for overall health, including cognitive function. A study that looked at the dietary habits of nearly 28,000 men found that subjects with higher intakes of vegetables, fruits, and fruit juice were less likely to develop poor cognitive function in late life. (5) If you’ve ever stopped to wonder why your memory is so bad, think about your food choices and try incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet!
It’s also important to make sure that you’re getting enough of certain vitamins that are essential for brain health, especially vitamin B12. Consult your doctor about supplementation options if you suspect that you may not be getting enough of this vitamin from your diet. Getting a yearly blood test to stay on top of nutrition deficiencies is also a good idea.
5. Manage underlying medical issues
Forgetfulness can be a symptom of serious medical conditions such as dementia or other neurodegenerative disorders such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
If you have any diagnosed medical conditions that may contribute to why your memory is so bad, it’s important to find ways to manage these issues under the surveillance of a medical professional. The treatment will vary depending on the underlying medical problem.
Why is my memory so bad? Conclusion
Researchers have not yet managed to completely demystify the complex system that is the human memory. However, significant advancements have been made in the investigation of how memory works, what causes memory loss, and how memory problems can be mitigated.
Occasional memory lapses happen to everyone: you should not be alarmed just because you feel forgetful from time to time. However, if you’re worried about having poor memory as you age, there are things you can do to improve your cognitive function and boost your memory. These include playing brain training games, exercising regularly, getting an adequate amount of sleep each night, adopting a healthy diet and making sure you don’t have any vitamin deficiencies.
(1) Baddeley, A. (2014). Essentials of Human Memory (Classic Edition). London: Psychology Press. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203587027
(2) Exercise Adds Up to Big Brain Boosts (2019). Retrieved from https://www.cogneurosociety.org/exercise-adds-up-to-big-brain-boosts/
(3) Van Dongen, E.V & Kersten, I.H.P. & Wagner, I.C. & Morris, R.G.M. & Fernández, G. (2016): Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Current Biology, 26(13), 1722-1727. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.071
(4) Dang-Vu, T.T. & Desseilles, M & Peigneux, P. & Maquet, P. (2006). A Role for Sleep in Brain Plasticity. Pediatric Rehabilitation, 9(2), 98–118. https://doi.org/10.1080/13638490500138702
(5) Yuan, C & Fondell, E & Bhushan, A & Ascherio, A & Okereke, O.I. & Grodstein, F & Willett, W.C (2019). Long-Term Intake of Vegetables and Fruits and Subjective Cognitive Function in US Men. Neurology, 92(1), 63-75. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000006684