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Many people have problems with their memory after a stroke, especially in the first weeks and months. This page explains how stroke can affect your memory and things that may help.

On this page:

Why has my memory been affected?
Signs of memory problems
What can I do about my memory problems?

Why has my memory been affected?

We store all kinds of information in our memory. We also have different types of memory for storing information for different lengths of time. This is known as short-term and long-term memory.

  • Short-term memory is like a temporary storehouse for information. It allows you to remember things just long enough for you to use them. For example, when you read a telephone number, you use your short-term memory to remember it for the few seconds it takes you to dial. This is also known as working memory.
  • Long-term memory keeps information that you will need to recall later, such as events and feelings from the past.

Many people have problems with their memory after a stroke, especially in the first weeks and months. It often affects short-term memory more than long-term. Someone might find it hard to remember something they have just been told, but might recall something that happened 10 years ago.

Memory problems may not always be due to a problem with your memory itself. They can often be due to problems with attention and concentration, because if you’re unable to focus on what you’re being told, you’re not going to be able to remember it later. If you have difficulty sleeping after your stroke, this may also make it harder to remember things. This is because your brain needs sleep to move information from short to long-term storage. 

Emotional problems like anxiety can also make it hard to concentrate. This can make you feel as if you have memory problems.

Signs of memory problems

If your short-term memory has been affected, you may find it difficult to remember:

  • What someone just said to you.
  • What you were about to do.

If your long-term memory has been affected, then you may find it difficult to remember:

  • Important dates or when you’ve got an appointment.
  • Where you’ve put something.
  • Someone’s name or what they told you last time you met.

What can I do about my memory problems?

Write things down

  • Use calendars or diaries to keep track of appointments and important dates. You can also use them to record things that happened that day.
  • Keep a notepad and pen with you. Make a note of small tasks as you do them, so that you know if you’ve fed the cat or phoned someone.
  • Write short notes after you’ve spoken with someone. If you do this after a doctor’s appointment, or even a chat with a friend, you can remind yourself of what you talked about the next time you see them.

Use prompts

  • Set your phone or a cooking timer to remind you to take your medication.
  • Leave things like your keys or wallet near the front door, so that you’ll see them when you go out.
  • Add pictures of people next to their details in your contacts book, to help you remember who they are.
  • A pill or dosette box can help you organise the medication you need to take each day, so you can easily see whether you’ve taken it or not. Most pharmacists will sort your medication into special packs for you, so you know what you need to take each day.

Put reminders where you will see them

  • Leave notes in noticeable places. Buy a pen that you can use to write on your bathroom mirror, or set up a whiteboard somewhere obvious.
  • You could put up signs in the kitchen to remind you to turn the cooker off, or on the back of the door to remind you to lock it when you go out.

Keep things in the same place

  • Labels on cupboards and drawers will help you know where things go. They do not have to be written labels, you could use pictures instead. It may help to keep your glasses on a chain around your neck, to stop you from losing them.

If writing is difficult:

  • You could make voice recordings using a dictaphone or an app on your smartphone.
  • Use pictures: you can take photos on most phones.
  • Ask people to help you. Ask them to write down the main points of your conversation, so that you can take it away to read over afterwards.

Plan your day

  • Keep to a routine and do certain tasks, like taking your medication or locking your doors, at the same time every day.
  • Write a ‘to do’ list for the next day before you go to bed. That way you’ll know what you have to do as soon as you get up. You could make it part of your routine to sit down with a family member or carer and do this at the end of every day.
  • Tiredness and stress will make it more difficult for you to concentrate, take in information and remember it later. Leave extra time to do things. Make sure you plan time to rest throughout the day as well.

Try mental techniques

  • Verbal prompts can help. Some people use acronyms or sayings to help them remember things. The acronym ‘SLAC’ could help you remember to Set the alarm, Lock the door And Close the gate when leaving the house.
  • Try using mental pictures. For example, if you need to remember an address on Clifton Road, picture a road leading up to a cliff.
  • Focusing on a particular feature can help you remember people. You may remember that your consultant is the doctor with curly hair, rather than the one with the glasses.
  • Some people find repeating information can help them remember it. When you’ve been told something new, you could get someone to ask you a few seconds later if you remember it, and then again a few seconds after that. Once you’ve remembered it for a short period, it may be more likely to stick.

Can memory games help?

There are number of games and exercises (most of them computer-based), which aim to improve your memory. However, it’s difficult to say for certain whether these really help.

Research has shown that some memory exercises can help people to improve, but they need a therapist to work through the tasks with them, to make sure that they’re doing them in the right way. Even then, the improvements people see do not tend to last very long and are difficult to apply to tasks that are not part of the training.