The Long and Short of ADHD and Memory

Individuals with ADHD often report frequent episodes of forgetfulness and may find tasks that require using short-term memory more challenging than their neurotypical peers. ADHD can also impact long-term memory functions as well.

Effects of ADHD on Memory

Working memory is our brain’s temporary storage system. It holds several pieces of information while solving a problem or performing a task. Working memory helps us hold information long enough to use it in a short period of time, focus on a task, and remember what to do next.

Long term memory is our brain’s more permanent form of storage. Information is encoded in our long term memory through reinforcement activities like studying or performing a task repeatedly.

Two factors can impact short term memory in an individual with ADHD. One is capacity; the other is distraction. Someone with ADHD can have less short term memory capacity than a neurotypical individual.

They are also more easily distracted while trying to hold information in their short term memory. Thus, items of information they were holding while performing a task get replaced by the distracting item.

This in turn may result in a more difficult time holding information long enough to move it into long term memory. This can, in part, explain the disconnect between IQ and learning ability in people with ADHD. An individual can have high intelligence, but struggle with learning because learning is so dependent on both working memory and long term memory.

Below is a video by Jessica McCabe which helps explain the interplay between ADHD and memory.

Why I Can’t Remember Things — How ADHD Affects Working Memory

Basic Things to Help Improve Memory

While there may be no direct way to alter brain structures to improve memory in someone with ADHD, there are coping and compensation strategies that can be used to assist working memory.

Some of the most common suggestions are:

  • Lists
  • Planners (either paper or electronic)
  • Apps that help you remember important itms
  • Programs that help stimulate short term memory (though these are somewhat controversial)

Other important adjuncts to memory improvement include:

  • Medication
  • Therapy
  • Lifestyle changes – e.g., diet, exercise and environment changes

The challenges of memory issues can be overcome with a combination of these approaches.



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