Improving Your Memory With ADD

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Many people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulty with aspects of memory. They may have difficulty with recall, focusing, organization, and distinguishing between important and unimportant cues. They may distract easily, become forgetful, or have difficulty getting started on tasks. Lengthy multiple-step directions are often frustrating and impossible to follow.

This article discusses the relationship between ADHD and memory, including how the condition affects working memory and long-term memory. It also covers strategies to help people with ADHD train and improve their memory.

The Connection Between ADHD and Memory

Research suggests that people with ADHD experience a variety of memory problems including poor short-term and long-term memory. Many of the symptoms of ADHD, particularly difficulties with paying attention, can affect how information is encoded and stored in memory.

Because children and adults with ADHD don't pay attention to some things in their environment as much as they need to, they are less likely to form memories of that information.

ADHD and Working Memory

Studies also suggest that people with ADHD often have significant problems with working memory. 

Working memory is a "temporary storage system" in the brain that holds several facts or thoughts while solving a problem or performing a task. Working memory helps people hold information long enough to use it in the short term, focus on a task, and remember what to do next.

Working memory is important for holding on to information long enough for you to act on it. It is important for accomplishing aspects of daily living such as following instructions, planning actions, following a schedule, and organizing activities.

Deficits in working memory explain why children and adults with ADHD struggle with tasks such as staying on track, keeping organized, and finishing projects.

A 2020 study published in the journal Neuropsychology found that the majority of children with ADHD displayed impairments in working memory. Previous research had also found similar effects in adults with the condition.

ADHD and Long-Term Memory

Research also suggests that ADHD affects long-term memory. While worse performance on long-term memory tests among adults with ADHD had been well-documented, the exact explanations for this effect were not entirely clear. 

A 2017 study examined how adults with ADHD performed on long-term memory tests. The results found that participants performed significantly worse than those in a control group on tests of verbal memory. The researchers concluded that these memory deficits were related to problems with encoding the information and not related to problems with memory retrieval

How to Improve Your Working Memory

Research suggests that mental exercises may increase working memory in people with ADHD. Working memory is like a muscle—flexible, moveable, and trainable. It can be improved with "exercise" and training.

You can find various working memory challenges online. You may be tested for your ability to recall visual patterns or to recall auditory information. Some things you might try include:

  • Try online memory tools: Look for websites or apps that offer challenges designed to build your memory for verbal and visual information.
  • Play brain games: Some evidence suggests that cognitive training, also known as brain games, might help boost working memory as well as other areas such as attention, problem-solving, and reasoning. Some of these games might involve memorization, pattern recognition, planning, visual teasers, logic, and math.
  • Utilize memory strategies: When you know that you have trouble with memory, find tools and strategies that can help you remember important information. Doing things like utilizing mnemonics, writing down important information, and setting reminders on your phone may help you stay on track. 
  • Do one task at a time: Because poor working memory makes it difficult to juggle multiple tasks, you may find it helpful to avoid multitasking—instead, stick to one activity at a time. Work on eliminating distractions whenever possible. It may also be helpful to block out time limits and set alarms so that you can focus all of your attention on a single task for a limited time. Doing this can decrease the likelihood that you'll get distracted by other tasks and then forget to return to the one you were working on.
  • Exercise: Some research suggests that physical activity can be a helpful non-pharmacological tool for managing ADHD symptoms and improving brain structure and function. One study found that pre-school children who participated in an afterschool physical activity program performed better on tasks requiring working memory.
  • Take your medication: Stimulant medications are usually prescribed to treat the symptoms of ADHD. Some evidence suggests that this medication may also improve functioning in areas of the brain that are related to working memory.
  • Consider therapy: You may also find that therapy can be helpful for addressing memory issues that accompany ADHD. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focus on helping people change the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that contribute to problems. CBT can help you learn new coping mechanisms including time-management and goal-setting skills.

Recap

Exercises to "train" working memory can help improve a person's ability to concentrate, control impulsive behaviors, and strengthen problem-solving skills.

A Word From Verywell

While ADHD has been linked to memory difficulties, research also suggests that there are things people can do to address these issues. Brain training, memorization strategies, and adhering to your doctor's ADHD treatment recommendations are all steps you can take to help boost your memory.

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