Put Your Short-Term Memory to the Test

Mature man sitting at window, reading a book
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Can't remember the name of the person you just met—again? Forgot where you parked—again? Episodes of forgetfulness like these can be nerve-wracking. Some people find them a little scary. When this sort of thing happens frequently, people may even fear that they have a brain-related problem or are developing some form of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.

When you forget something you just thought about, it means you have a lapse in short-term memory. Short-term memory is, as the name suggests, brief in duration—this type of information stays in your mind for up to a minute. By contrast, long-term memory is where you keep the information you “know by heart."

If you're worried about your short-term memory, taking a test and seeing your results may help ease your mind. This article discusses why short-term memory is so important and how you can test your memory if you are concerned.

Symptoms of Short-Term Memory Loss

Short-term memory loss involves forgetting information that you recently thought about or learned. Some common symptoms include:

  • Asking the same questions multiple times
  • Forgetting something you just saw or read
  • Forgetting recent events
  • Forgetting where you’ve put something
  • Forgetting where you put something
  • Having problems remembering the names of people you just met
  • Walking into a room and forgetting why you are there

Why Short-Term Memory Matters

Short-term memory is essential to daily living. It’s what allows you to find your car keys, remember if you left the water running in the tub, and even whether you’ve eaten breakfast or brushed your teeth.

Short-term memory is a temporary holding area for information you are currently using or focused on. It is essential for daily functioning, which is why problems with this type of memory can be frustrating and potentially debilitating.

Because short-term memory is limited in terms of its capacity and duration, problems can happen. This helps explain why it is also subject to all sorts of glitches.

Experts suggest that there are multiple reasons you may forget a piece of information practically the minute you receive it. For instance, it may simply be too much information to retain that quickly.

It's long been believed that the average human brain can hold onto no more than seven things at once—one reason phone numbers (minus the area code, of course), are seven digits.

Other factors that can interfere with short-term memory are pain, stress, and lack of sleep. Interruptions and distractions can be major memory-stealers: If the bell rings while you’re in the middle of a conversation with a neighbor, chances are your friend will need to repeat the last thing they said to you before you answered the door.

Testing Your Short-Term Memory

There’s a bit of truth in the phrase “senior moment.” After the age of 50, most people do find it a little harder to remember new information, but this doesn't mean they're on the road to developing dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

One way to get a sense of how "normal" your own memory lapses are is to take a legitimate short-term memory test. There are several options available:

Free Memory Quizzes

For a quick, free, at-home option, consider trying the Memory Quiz offered by the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation. It's a simple true-false questionnaire that asks things like:

  • "Sometimes I get lost, even when I'm driving somewhere that I've been before."
  • "I often misplace my keys, and when I find them, I often can't remember putting them there."

A score of nine or higher indicates a problem that should be addressed with lifestyle changes, while a score over 12 suggests that you should see a doctor.

Another quiz you might try is the Mini-Mental Status Examination (MMSE) Online Test. The MMSE is a quick test designed to measure cognitive function in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

There is a free version available that may be helpful for assessing your memory as well as attention, language, and motor skills. To take the test, you'll need a pen and paper to write down your answers and a friend who can administer and score the test.

SAGE Memory Test

Another option is the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE), an at-home memory test designed by researchers from Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. It is designed to measure thinking and memory problems that can be early indicators of Alzheimer's disease. 

To take the test, you'll need to download the test to answer the questions with a pen and paper. It should take approximately 15 minutes to complete.

Once completed, the test will need to be scored by your healthcare provider. The maximum score possible is 22, and a score under 17 suggests that there are thinking problems present that should be further evaluated. A score under 15 or 16 suggests that the individual has mild cognitive impairment, and a score below 14 indicates the presence of dementia.

If your results suggest your memory issues are more than simple age-related forgetfulness, you should see your healthcare provider. A self-quiz can be helpful for spotting the signs of a potential problem, but you'll need further evaluation.

A Word From Verywell

At the same time, if your score doesn't indicate you've got a problem, keep in mind that even at an advanced age, the human brain is capable of developing new neurons, as long as it gets some "exercise." So use your head as much as possible: read, study a new language, learn how to juggle or knit, spend a lot of time socializing, and your brain will get the workout it needs to stay sharp.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I improve my short-term memory?

    Certain lifestyle changes may help improve short-term memory. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and following a Mediterranean diet can help. Cognitive training and other mental activities that challenge the brain may also lead to improvements.

    The National Insitute on Aging also recommends managing your blood pressure, controlling type 2 diabetes, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding smoking to maintain cognitive health.

  • How is short-term memory loss diagnosed?

    If your results have indicated a cause for concern, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider. They will ask questions about your symptoms, perform a physical exam, and order lab tests to look for possible medical issues that might be contributing to your memory problems.

    If needed, your provider may also order brain scans and cognitive tests. They may then make recommendations for treatments or ways to address memory problems, or they may refer you to a specialist.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Aging. Memory, forgetfulness, and aging: What's normal and what's not?

  2. Atkinson RC, Shiffrin RM. The control processes of short-term memory. Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences, Stanford University.

  3. National Institute on Aging. Assessing risk for Alzheimer's.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."