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Memory problems - A practical guide

Patient information A-Z

Understanding the causes of memory problems and how to manage them

There are many reasons for memory problems. Some memory problems result from neurological disorders while others may be the result of stress, anxiety, fatigue, depression or other factors. This booklet is intended to provide an understanding of the stages of memory, the causes of memory problems and some strategies for dealing with them.

What is ‘normal’ memory?

There is no such thing as “normal” memory. Everyone is different. Some people are poor at remembering names but may be good at remembering faces. It is normal to be forgetful and have memory lapses, such as being unable to remember a word or where we parked the car. Whilst these are a nuisance, they are not usually a sign that anything is seriously wrong with our memory.

Stages of Memory

Diagram showing the stages of memory.


Our capacity for storing and retrieving information


Paying attention and taking information in.

To form a new memory, we need to be able to concentrate and focus on the world around us. Psychologists and neurologists refer to this as ‘attention’, ‘working memory’ or ‘short-term memory’. It is a common misconception that short-term memory is the ability to remember events that have occurred over the last few days. Short-term memory is actually estimated to last for seconds. For instance, when we follow a conversation or remember a telephone number, we are using our short-term working memory.

A common symptom of short-term working memory (attentional) problems is walking into a room and forgetting what we have gone in there for.


Storing information

After information has been encoded, it then enters long term memory. Long term memory is information that has been retained for more than a few seconds.


Recalling information in the moment

After information is stored, we use a process called retrieval to access it. For example, recalling a holiday. Sometimes it is difficult to remember an incident or event unless prompted (for example by being shown a photograph). Often people don’t remember the exact details of holidays, events or incidents; this is entirely normal.

Causes of non-neurological memory problems

Stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain are amongst a variety of factors that can cause attentional short-term working memory (attentional) problems. These factors prevent us from being able to focus fully on the world around us. If we cannot attend to the information, we cannot recall it later, leading to memory problems.

Attentional capacity diagram

Causes of neurological memory problems

Neurological disorders, such as a brain injury or dementia*, can also cause memory problems. In some cases, these neurological illnesses may lead to longterm memory difficulties. When this occurs, even information that is properly attended to may not be remembered later. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease may not remember going on a recent holiday.

Strategies to help

External memory aids

External memory aids use prompts from the environment to help people to remember things.

Memory centres

In the home, it may help to develop a ‘memory centre’. This is a special place where you keep your keys, wallet, phone and diary. It could be a drawer in the hallway, a tray in the study or your bedside drawer. Ideally, the memory centre should have a diary or calendar nearby (if the calendar is not on your phone) and a notepad, so that you can see what you have planned for the week, and remember what messages to pass on. When out of the house, you might wish to use a mobile phone or diary for making notes, ready to store in your memory centre when you get home.

Using your mobile phone to help your memory

  • Making ‘to do’ lists
  • Setting timers or alarms as reminders
  • Using dictaphones or making voice memos to record messages

Remembering special occasions

It can be distressing for people to forget special occasions or events, such as a holiday or a meal with friends. Research we have undertaken has shown that the following can help:

  • Take lots of photographs of things you find interesting and would like to remember later
  • Take these photographs from your point of view rather than staged photographs / selfies
  • Look at the photographs regularly, ideally every two days for two weeks after the event
  • Talk about the event with someone else as you look at the photographs

Internal memory aids

Internal memory aids are things we can do in our minds to try and help our memory.


Saying things over and over silently or under your breath (or out loud) can help with problems such as forgetting why you have gone into a room. If you want to remember the name of someone you have just met, say their name in conversation a few times when you meet them (this is what politicians do!)

Small chunks

Try to break down information into bite-sized chunks or categories of information. This might help when there is a lot of information to take in.

Feel it, say it, do it

This involves using different senses to help you remember you have carried out a task. If you want to remember that you have locked the front door, pay attention to how the key feels and the sensation of turning it in the lock; “I am now locking the door with my key”. This encourages a deeper level of encoding.

Keeping to a routine

Having structure and routine in our lives helps us reduce the number of things that we need to remember. A timetable can help, or sticking to regular times for activities during the week.

When to seek further help for your memory

Non-urgent advice: You should speak to your doctor if:

  • Your memory has been getting progressively worse over time
  • Your memory has changed significantly from what is usual for you
  • The change in your memory is affecting your ability to do things you have always been able to do
  • Other people are concerned about your memory

Sources of support and information

Alzheimer’s Society (opens in a new tab)

Tel: 0300 222 1122

Information and support to help people live well with any type of dementia (not just Alzheimer’s disease). Support and resources for carers.

Headway – the brain injury association (opens in a new tab)

Tel: 0115 924 0800

Information, support and services to survivors, their families and carers.

Cambridge and Peterborough Foundation NHS Trust (CPFT) (opens in a new tab)

Tel: 01223 726789

Mental health, learning disability, social care, and community services for adults and older people resident in the area.

The Stroke Association (opens in a new tab)

Tel: 0303 3033100

Information and advice for people affected by stroke.

Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) (opens in a new tab)

Treatment for depression and anxiety disorders.

Live Well (opens in a new tab)

NHS advice on problems such as insomnia, pain, fatigue and other aspects of health and wellbeing.

Reading Well Books on Prescription (opens in a new tab)

Reading Well Books on Prescription helps you to understand and manage your health and well-being using self-help reading. The scheme is endorsed by health professionals and supported by public libraries.

We are smoke-free

Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the hospital campus. For advice and support in quitting, contact your GP or the free NHS stop smoking helpline on 0800 169 0 169.

Other formats

Help accessing this information in other formats is available. To find out more about the services we provide, please visit our patient information help page (see link below) or telephone 01223 256998.

Contact us

Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151