How to Improve Working Memory in Adults

Anju Mobin
By Anju Mobin
Joel Taylor
Edited by Joel Taylor

Published February 28, 2022.

A father and son playing chess while standing up and leaning on the table

Have you ever walked into a room and couldn’t remember why you went there in the first place? Is that just being absentminded, or is this type of memory loss a serious concern?

Rather than short-term memory, a different cognitive system known as the working memory is required in such circumstances. Having a poor working memory can negatively impact your daily life. You may end up leaving projects unfinished and forget where you left your things.

Approximately 10% of the total population has poor working memory. In dyslexics and among those with specific learning disorders, this can be as high as 20-50%.

Read on to learn various strategies and activities to improve working memory in adults.

What Is Working Memory?

Working memory (WM) is a specific type of short-term memory that processes language and perception in your brain. It holds multiple pieces of transitory information in the mind needed to finish the different ongoing tasks (1).

Consider it as a temporary sticky note in the brain that holds new information and helps your mind organize it for long-term storage. If you are jotting down an address and simultaneously trying to understand the direction, that's your working memory in play. Trying to remember a phone number you just heard is also your working memory in action.

Working memory has only a limited capacity and can hold small amounts of information temporarily. In other words, working memory helps use relevant information to formulate a course of action.

Age is an important factor in working memory. As old age approaches and cognitive function declines, working memory is also usually affected. The frequent searches for missing keys or spectacles are classic examples of poor working memory.

Symptoms of Poor Working Memory

Some of the common indicators of poor working memory include:

  • Inattentive and distractible behavior
  • Failure to complete day-to-day activities
  • A need to re-read pages or sentences
  • Difficulty staying engaged
  • Difficulty following multi-step directions
  • Lack of focus and attention
  • Performance failure
  • Trouble planning and organizing

A certain amount of reduction in working memory is normal with age. However, when it tends to cause trouble planning, organizing, and carrying out daily chores, it becomes a cause for concern.

What Can You Do to Improve Working Memory?

Adult tests for working memory can assess your WM, and the different ways to improve WM are:

1. Reduce Stress

Stress can be a big cause of poor working memory (2)(3). Stress can affect your overall ability that requires effortful information processing. Therefore, removing stress can help improve the efficiency of your WM.

2. Increase Daily Exercise

Daily exercise supports the growth of new brain cells. Activity promotes brain plasticity by stimulating the growth and making new connections between cells in many important areas of the brain (4).

3. Make Checklists

Checklists can prevent you from forgetting stuff and can also help and support your day-to-day activity, keeping you well organized.

4. Practice Certain Skills

There are certain strategies and activities to improve your working memory, especially phonological working memory. For example, try games that use visual memory, games that help make connections, practice active reading, play cards, work on visualization skills, and other such activities.

5. Games to Improve Working Memory

Certain games are great for improving WM. These include crossword puzzles, chess, jigsaw puzzles, rebus puzzles, sudoku, etc.

6. Foods to Fight Memory Loss

Foods to fight memory loss and boost your brain are fatty fish, blueberries, turmeric, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolates, nuts, coffee, oranges, eggs, green tea, etc.

If meeting your daily requirements for all these vitamins and minerals is difficult, then try a brain-boosting supplement to help you get there.

7. Use Training Apps

Interestingly there are several training apps to improve WM. Lumosity, Fit Brains Trainer, CogniFit Brain Fitness, Brain Fitness Pro, Happify, and Clockwork Brain are filled with riddles and optical illusions that make use of your reasoning ability.

8. Strategy Training

A study on the effect of strategic training on performance in working memory tasks strongly showcased a positive effect. Memory training, using an imagery-based strategy, can enhance the performance of older and younger adults while improving their working memory (5).

9. Direct Working Memory Training

Working memory training (WMT) brings changes in cognitive function. This is also evident in people who suffer from a range of neuropsychiatric conditions, especially adults with ADHD and dementia (6).

Make Use of the Memory Capacity You Have

Woking memory varies from individual to individual and is affected by environmental stressors, disease, and age. Other causes of poor WM are crash diets, an unhealthy lifestyle, and brain shrinkage with age.

However, even if you may not be able to expand your WM, you can improve on what you have. Proper training and strategies improve the plasticity of the nerves and working memory, and so their importance cannot be stressed enough.