“ADHD is like having a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. Strengthen the brakes, and you have a champion.”
– Edward Hallowell
The ADHD brain races through pieces of information without being able to slow down when it needs to.
Because of how quickly the ADHD brain jumps from one thought to another, it can be challenging to focus on capturing, organizing, and imprinting information. This can lead to memory challenges that interfere with daily life.
Fortunately, you can manage these struggles via lifestyle changes, medications, and various memory improvement techniques. These strategies help your brain pace itself, regulate attention, and remember details more effectively.
If you’re struggling with memory problems, the first step to managing them is determining whether they’re caused by ADHD or another underlying condition.
Differentiating ADHD from Other Memory Problems
Don’t panic! Understanding your ADHD symptoms will help you find the right workarounds. But definitely talk to your doctor to rule out other medical conditions.
ADHD can also mimic dementia, another condition that affects memory. However, the two can be differentiated by examining present symptoms and when they appeared.
Dementia alters a person’s ability to recall information they used to be able to. For instance, a person with dementia might forget how to carry out daily tasks or navigate a familiar neighborhood.
In contrast, ADHD makes it harder for the brain to imprint new information due to poor focus. So adults with ADHD may misplace items or forget instructions.
Getting assessed if you notice memory issues or a history of them is a good idea since memory symptoms due to ADHD typically start to show up in childhood.
How Does ADHD Affect Memory?
If ADHD is the cause of your memory problems, it can lead to the following symptoms:
- Forgetting to do household tasks or chores, like paying bills on time
- Struggling to remember and follow instructions in the right order
- Making careless mistakes and lacking attention to details
- Misplacing important items, such as your wallet or keys
- Trouble remembering special occasions like birthdays
- Struggling to keep track of deadlines
These symptoms are common in ADHD because they impact both the working memory and long-term memory of individuals.
ADHD and Working Memory
Working memory refers to the brain’s storage space for short-term information that allows it to be retrieved quickly and efficiently. This is the small amount of information your brain will hold while you work on a related task or solve a problem.
Research has found that ADHD can negatively impact the working memory of adults with this disorder.
Working memory is essential for completing daily activities, such as following and remembering instructions, organizing your schedule, or prioritizing activities. ADHDers commonly struggle with these tasks.
Working memory deficits are linked to a lack of focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity in ADHD. They also affect the individual’s emotional processing and social skills.
ADHD and Long-Term Memory
Long-term memory doesn’t necessarily refer to information you recall from years ago. Even memories formed an hour ago are part of your long-term memory.
Scientists are still studying the link between ADHD and long-term memory. Current research shows that ADHD may not directly impact your long-term memory.
Instead, it affects your ability to encode information, which is the process of moving information from your short-term or working memory to your long-term memory.
That’s because the ADHD brain tends to process information in a disorganized manner. This makes it harder for that information to be moved and stored successfully in your long-term memory.
Plus, ADHDers tend to get easily distracted. So, they may not be engaged long enough to have a piece of information moved to their long-term memory.
ADHD and Memory Loss
Memory loss refers to unusual forgetfulness in which a person cannot recall events or information they previously could. This usually affects older adults and those with dementia instead of those with ADHD.
Currently, there’s no substantial evidence that having ADHD will put you at a higher risk of dementia or other conditions that might lead to memory loss.
The Science Behind the ADHD Brain and Memory
Scientists are still digging deeper into the main reason why ADHD affects memory. So far, studies have found that the memory challenges associated with ADHD are likely due to differences in the activation of various parts of the brain.
ADHDers with impaired memory tend to have reduced activation in specific brain regions, including the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex.
Lower activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex can make it more challenging to remember task goals, instructions, or rules. This area of the brain also enables a person to focus on a specific task until it’s complete. Problems in this brain region can reduce attention, increase distractability, and impact memory.
That said, it’s important to note that memory-linked symptoms don’t reflect intelligence. While ADHD can make learning and memorizing new information harder, there’s no correlation between it and a person’s IQ. People with ADHD have the same potential as anyone else when they figure out what they need to perform at their best.
ADHD and Brain Fog
ADHD may increase forgetfulness by reducing the activation of specific brain regions. Aside from that, it may also be associated with a phenomenon known as brain fog.
ADHD brain fog describes the temporary sluggishness and slowdown of your brain’s thinking abilities.
People with brain fog may experience symptoms such as mental exhaustion, poor focus, carelessness, and forgetfulness.
ADHD may be linked to brain fog and increased forgetfulness in the following ways:
- Dysregulated dopamine pathway: A dysregulation in the pathway of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain is associated with symptoms of inattention in ADHD. Inattention in ADHD can manifest as poor memory, carelessness, and low focus.
- Poor sleep: Sleeping problems are commonly reported among people with ADHD. A lack of quality sleep can, in turn, increase daytime drowsiness, reduce attention, and affect memory and learning.
- ADHD medication side effects: While medications for ADHD are often effective, some people may experience side effects from these medications. Some side effects include poor sleep, low energy levels, and daytime sleepiness.
In most cases, ADHD medications can be an effective way of coping with brain fog and reducing its impact on your memory and learning.
You can tailor your treatment plan based on your response to the medications and whether you experience any side effects.
ADHD Masking: Are You Hiding Your Memory Symptoms?
ADHD masking is trying to appear “regular” or “normal” by suppressing your symptoms. ADHDers with memory issues may try to conceal or compensate for them. They might do so to be accepted socially and fit in better with their peers or colleagues.
For example, an ADHDer who commonly forgets appointments or special occasions with friends and family might say they’re too busy with work or other commitments.
In any case, masking your ADHD memory problems can increase stress and anxiety. Keeping up your image and covering up for any mistakes gets exhausting in the long haul.
Furthermore, masking your ADHD memory challenges delays and prevents you from seeking support or treatment.
Remember that your memory challenges and what others might think of you do not define your intelligence or true capabilities. Your brain simply processes and uses information differently.
By acknowledging any ADHD-linked memory problems, you’re one step closer to getting the treatment and support you need to manage them in an effective and sustainable way.
Strategies for Managing ADHD-Related Memory Issues
There are many ways you can improve your memory with ADHD.
Besides changing your lifestyle and routine, you can also carry out memory training and implement strategies to help you remember information better.
It will take some experimentation to find what works for you. Some ADHDers find that having Post-It notes helps them remember things best. Others notice their memory improves most by getting enough quality sleep at night. While many find the ADDA+ support groups a great way to find out what’s working for other people in your stage of life or career.
Here are some science-backed and practical ways to improve your memory with ADHD.
Memory-Friendly Routine and Lifestyle Changes
Maintaining a healthy mind and body is one of the best ways to sharpen your memory.
Some memory-friendly lifestyle practices that you can start implementing include the following:
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Around 25-50% of ADHDers report sleeping problems. To improve sleep quality, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. You can also create a conducive bedroom environment for sleeping by keeping the room cool, dark, and quiet at night.
Setting up a screen-free period an hour before bed and avoiding caffeinated beverages and alcohol too close to bedtime can also help you sleep better at night.
- Get enough exercise: Exercise may improve working memory and attention in those with ADHD. It can also enhance executive function, which refers to the mental processes that allow you to plan, focus, and think flexibly.
Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of higher-intensity exercise per week.
- Stick to a balanced diet: Try to increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and get enough proteins and healthy fats for an ideal ADHD diet. It’s also best to limit your intake of sugary and fatty foods, as well as processed foods and meats.
- Build a stress management routine: Stress can affect memory retrieval. It may also lead to working memory deficits. You can build a stress management routine involving meditation, yoga, or breathwork.
Taking a jog in nature, running a warm bath, or applying diluted essential oils to your skin are other simple ways to relieve stress.
Changing your lifestyle for the better serves as a multi-pronged sword. Not only will this help to improve your memory, but it may also reduce other symptoms of ADHD and increase your mental alertness and focus.
Memory Improvement Strategies
Certain memory techniques and strategies can help you remember details better in your daily life – including deadlines, pending tasks, appointments, and instructions.
Here are some memory strategies you can implement at work, school, or home:
- Break down complex tasks into smaller bits. Take, for example, a big assignment. You might forget important steps or instructions if you tackle it as a whole. Instead, break it down into smaller goals and list these sub-tasks on a checklist as a guide for you to follow.
- Avoid multitasking. Handling more than one cognitively demanding task at a time increases the chances that you’ll forget something important or make careless mistakes. To reduce multitasking, keep only the items you need on your work desk, close any unrelated tabs, and use an app or notification blocker on your phone.
- Create your own reminders. You can set alarms and reminders on your devices to help you keep track of deadlines and important events. Leaving Post-It notes on areas you frequently look at can also help you remember things better.
- Try habit stacking. If you constantly forget chores, you can stack them on top of something you regularly do. For example, you may put a load of laundry in while brewing your usual cup of coffee.
You can also experiment with different memorization techniques to learn and remember new information more effectively. The following are some examples:
- Using acronyms: For instance, a student might use the acronym “PEMDAS” to represent the order of mathematical operations, which starts with “Parentheses” and ends with “Addition/Subtraction.”
- Using acrostics: An example would be “My Very Excellent Mom Just Served Us Noodles,” where the first letter of each word coincides with the first letter of each planet in order.
- Creating visual connections: You can remember a new person’s name by connecting it with a picture in your head, like a celebrity or a similar-sounding word (e.g., “stove” for a Steve you’ve just met).
- Chunking: Chunking involves breaking down large pieces of information into smaller chunks into different categories based on their similarities. For example, you might break a grocery list down into “food,” “snacks,” and “toiletries.”
While the memory techniques can help you absorb and remember more information, try to avoid overloading your brain with too much at once.
Every person has their limits. And there’s no shame in using note-taking apps, calendars, or phone reminders to help you keep your daily activities on track.
Cognitive Training and Memory Exercises
Research suggests that brain training games can help to improve working memory and executive function in young adults.
Many brain training apps and books (e.g., Lumosity and Brain Age) involve memorization, pattern recognition, planning, and problem-solving. Other popular brain-training games include Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and Tetris.
Alternatively, you can create your own brain training games like drawing a map or recalling a list of items from memory.
Seeking Support and Professional Guidance
If your ADHD symptoms and memory challenges noticeably impact your work, studies, or relationships, it’s best to seek professional help.
ADHD medications can help to improve attention and other symptoms of ADHD. Research also suggests that it can enhance memory functioning in adults with ADHD.
You may also benefit from working together with an ADHD coach. This professional can help you build structures and strategies to organize, plan, prioritize, and remember details more effectively.
Stretching Your Memory Capacity With ADHD
Poor memory is an ADHD symptom that’s often not talked about. Despite this, your ADHD memory challenges aren’t any less important to address.
Keep in mind that everyone processes information in different ways. The strategies that help your brain learn, remember, and digest information might not work for another person, and vice versa.
The best ways to expand your memory capabilities are by seeking proper treatment and experimenting with different routines, memory techniques, and lifestyle habits to find what helps you best.
Learn more about improving your memory and focus with the resources in ADDA+. This members-only community of adult ADHDers offers resources, courses, and peer support to help you thrive with ADHD!
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