Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder that begins in childhood but usually persists into adulthood. It is divided into three subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined.
Symptoms of inattention include difficulty concentrating, completing tasks and instructions, making “careless” mistakes, losing items, and problems with other activities that require sustained concentration.
Hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms include constant movement, physical restlessness, difficulty controlling impulses, interrupting or blurting out responses, and difficulty waiting for turns.
Forgetting things like appointments, tasks, or paying bills is common in children and adults with ADHD. ADHD can also affect working memory. This article will discuss the ways ADHD affects memory, strategies to improve memory, and more.
What is working memory?
Working memory is the short-term storage space of the brain. When information is received, working memory retains it for a short period of time as it processes it and encodes it into useful data. From there, the information is stored in long-term memory.
Working memory includes:
- Reordering: Maintaining and rearranging information
- Update: Proactively monitor incoming information and replace outdated information with more relevant information
- Double processing: keeping information in mind while performing another task
ADHD and memory problems
It is estimated that as many as 80% to 85% of children with ADHD will have working memory problems when assessed using cognitive tasks. Research shows that these difficulties persist into adulthood.
Longitudinal studies have shown that the severity of working memory impairment correlates with the severity of ADHD symptoms. While not everyone with ADHD has working memory problems, working memory impairment is associated with symptoms such as inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity in people with ADHD.
Difficulties with working memory can affect areas such as academic achievement, organization, emotional processing, and social relationships.
Working memory affects how people process and store information and follow instructions. For example, working memory comes into play when remembering items on a shopping list, or following multi-step instructions such as “eat breakfast, then put lunch in your backpack, then put on your shoes.”
Working memory also affects areas like reading and math.
Long-term memory problems are also associated with ADHD. It is thought that the problems people with ADHD experience with long-term memory stem from their difficulties with working memory. While they have no problem recalling information, recall is only as useful as how the information is stored.
People with ADHD may encode information in a disorganized way that results in information being processed in a less useful way or not entering long-term memory.
How long is long-term memory?
While long-term memory sounds like it refers to your ability to remember things years ago, it actually describes memories that are processed and stored through working memory. This may only take a moment. If you watch a movie and are asked to name your favorite part, your description will be retrieved from your long-term memory.
Can ADHD cause memory loss?
Some cognitive symptoms associated with ADHD may also resemble prodromal dementia, also known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is especially true for people over the age of 50.
Despite the similarities between these two conditions, they are basically unrelated conditions. There is no causal relationship between them. If ADHD contributes to an increased risk of MCI, it is likely through health-damaging behaviors that are more common in people with ADHD, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and substance use.
A 2021 study suggests that parents and grandparents of people with ADHD have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, but the link is unclear. More research is needed in this area.
Managing ADHD Amnesia
Stimulant medication has been shown to improve many symptoms of ADHD, and for some people, it may help manage working memory and other memory difficulties.
There are many ways to help you stay on track and remember the details you need to know. These include:
- Calendar, physical or digital
- Set up alarms and reminders for appointments, tasks and commitments
- Organizing applications
- List so that no steps or items are missed
- Posted List of Instructions and Routines for Children
- Visual reminders, such as sticky notes
- Visualize the end result rather than individual tasks, such as posting a photo of your child fully ready for school, with all the items they need
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Memory and sorting games like Focus, Matching and Simon Says can help strengthen existing memory skills.
Repeating and rehearsing the information, routines, and other things you or your child needs to remember can help it “stick” better. When giving instructions to a child with ADHD, ask them to repeat what you said.
economics of memory Involves using small “tricks” to connect new information you are learning with information you already know.
Examples of mnemonics include:
- Chunking: Organizing larger information into smaller groups of information, such as how a phone number is formatted as 111-222-3333
- Music: Set the message to a tune you know, or make up one. Think about how jingle works.
- Acronyms: Use initials to create an acronym that prompts you to memorize entire phrases, such as HOMES for the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior).
- Acrostics: This type of poetry forms a phrase by assigning a word to each letter in the concept, such as every good boy deserves a Fudge, remember the order of lines in the treble clef, or pardon my dear Aunt Sally’s Sequential math operations (parentheses, exponentiation, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction).
- Rhyming: Rhyming helps make certain things easier to remember, such as “I comes after E, except C” or “30 days have September, April, June, and November.”
- Connections: Create connections between information. If you need red and green files, think of them as “Christmas files”. Assign an adjective to people’s names, such as Happy Harry.
- How to locate: Imagine a path with familiar objects along the way, such as a room in a house, or a landmark on the way to school or work. Assign the information you want to remember to each place. When you need to remember that information, mentally “walk” the road, triggering recall of the information as you go.
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Tips for improving memory
There seems to be no way to reliably improve working memory in a sustained, long-term manner. Apps and games exist to improve working memory and “brain training,” but evidence for their efficacy is mixed.
There is more evidence of improvements in tasks where applications specifically “work”, but less evidence to support these benefits more generally in other domains.
A 2019 study showed promise for training tasks that target multiple cognitive structures, rather than working memory or attention alone, and are administered in person rather than virtually. This approach shows the impact on trained skills and transfers the impact to everyday functions such as behavior, academics, confidence, cooperation, and self-esteem. More research is needed to explore these findings.
Memory problems such as forgetfulness and poor working memory are associated with ADHD. People with ADHD may have difficulty encoding and processing information in working memory, which can lead to long-term memory problems.
There’s no proven way to improve working memory overall, but “brain training” apps and games are being researched as a way to positively impact working memory in people with ADHD. Tools such as mnemonic devices, calendars, organizing apps, and using reminders can help people with ADHD remember information, tasks, and events.
Stimulant medications and behavioral therapy may also help relieve memory impairment as part of overall ADHD treatment.
If you or your child has ADHD, you may notice forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, and other characteristics that are affected by working memory. While you may not be able to significantly change your working memory, you can use and build on the skills you have.
Talk to your healthcare provider to discuss treating your overall ADHD. This may help relieve memory symptoms. You can also try memory “tricks” such as mnemonic devices and organizational tools to help you stay on track.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can ADHD cause Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia?
These conditions all share some similar symptoms, but it’s not certain they’re related. A 2021 study suggests that parents and grandparents of people with ADHD have a higher risk of developing dementias such as Alzheimer’s, but the link is unclear. More research is needed in this area.
Do ADHD Drugs Help Memory?
Stimulant medications are effective in treating overall ADHD symptoms. For some people, medication can help with memory difficulties associated with ADHD.
What type of treatment is best for ADHD?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy that has been shown to be helpful for people with ADHD. ADHD counseling is another option. Which therapy works best depends largely on the individual.