Memory Loss

What Is Memory Loss

Everyone forgets things sometimes. A normal, healthy brain has to sort through a lot of information on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes the information you need gets misplaced. So if you sometimes forget where you put your keys or you have to stop once in a while and remember what you were doing, it’s likely not the result of a disease process, rather a normal aspect of human mental functioning.

However, memory loss can be a cause for concern if:

  • It gets in the way of your day-to-day life
  • It happens more than once in a while
  • You forget important things, like the name of a close friend or relative
  • You forget whole conversations, or repeat yourself a lot
  • You get lost in a place you should know, or you forget where things belong
  • You often forget or misuse words
  • You don’t remember your own memory lapses, but other people do
  • Your memory continues to worsen over time

According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 8 people over the age of 60 have experienced confusion or worsening memory loss within the last year. Memory loss may be an early warning sign of a serious condition such as Alzheimer’s disease, or it may be something easy to fix, such as a side effect of a medication. Either way, if you think you have memory problems, or if people close to you are seeing memory lapses you don’t notice, you should speak with your doctor.

What Causes Memory Loss

Many causes can affect your memory. Some are minor and easy to fix, while others may be the start of a long-term health problem. Memory loss is always cause for concern, but you shouldn’t worry too much until you’ve spoken with your doctor.

Memory loss may be caused by something in your lifestyle, such as:

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Unhealthy eating habits, or a shortage of certain vitamins

Memory loss can also be caused by a medical condition. This can be the early stages of a serious brain disease such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, but it could also be a less serious condition, such as an infection or a thyroid disorder.

Diseases that are likely to cause dementia include:

  • Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies, caused by buildup of a specific protein in the brain
  • Genetic conditions such as Huntington’s disease and frontotemporal dementia
  • Prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and mad cow disease
  • Physical problems inside the brain, such as brain tumors, vascular dementia, and normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a memory disorder that often affects heavy drinkers

Other conditions that may be at the root of your memory problems include:

  • Depression or bipolar disorder
  • Other mental health disorders
  • Head injury
  • Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)—often referred to as a “mini stroke”
  • Infections, such as HIV, syphilis, or tuberculosis
  • Migraines    
  • Amnesia
  • Thyroid disease
  • Low blood sugar
  • Mild cognitive impairment, which is a medical term for memory loss that is above average for your age
  • Oxygen shortage caused by heart attack, drowning, or anything else that cuts off the oxygen supply to your brain

Memory loss may also be caused by a treatment for another medical condition, including:

  • Various medicines
  • Surgery or anesthesia
  • Electroconvulsive treatment
  • Radiation, chemotherapy, or other cancer treatments

Risk Factors For Memory Loss

Memory loss can have many causes, and each of these causes has its own risk factors.

Risk factors for mild cognitive impairment include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes.

Risk factors for amnesia include:

  • Head injury
  • Stroke
  • Alcohol abuse

Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia include:

  • Family history and genetics 
  • Head injury
  • Problems with blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes

You may be able to protect your memory by keeping your mind and your body active. Factors that appear to lower your risk of memory problems include:

  • Higher education
  • Regular exercise
  • Social activity
  • Mental exercise, such as games, puzzles, or a stimulating job or hobby

Diagnosing Memory Loss

Your doctor will start by asking you questions about:

  • Your symptoms
  • Your family history
  • Your day-to-day life, such as whether memory problems have interfered with your usual activities

Your doctor will also review your medical history and give you a physical examination. During the physical exam, your doctor will probably test:

  • Your reflexes
  • Your balance and coordination
  • Your vision
  • Your hearing

Your doctor or a mental health professional may also test your memory and thinking skills, and possibly give you a psychological exam.

You may also need:

  • Imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI, to check for physical problems with your brain, such as bleeding, blood clots, or tumors
  • Blood tests or other lab work to check for hormone problems, vitamin deficiencies, infections, and other possible causes

Do not expect a quick diagnosis. Memory problems can be difficult to diagnose, because there are many factors that could cause the same symptoms.

Symptoms of Memory Loss

Everyone forgets things from time to time. Memory loss is a problem if it happens frequently, if it causes problems in your day-to-day life, or if it seems to be getting worse over time. One problem in memory loss is that it can happen without your noticing it, so you may need to rely on other people’s observations when things seem fine to you–or you may notice memory loss in loved ones who don’t see it for themselves.

Memory loss may be a sign of a more serious problem if you experience:

  • Forgetting important dates
  • Not remembering things you were just told
  • Taking longer to do routine tasks
  • Trouble following recipes or directions
  • Forgetting everyday words or having difficulty following a conversation
  • Forgetting where things are
  • Poor judgment
  • Personality changes or social withdrawal


The long-term outcome depends on the nature of your memory loss. If your memory problems have a specific, treatable cause, then the problem may go away as soon as the underlying cause is addressed.Reversible causes of memory loss include:

  • Stress
  • Untreated depression
  • Lack of sleep
  • Thyroid problems
  • Nutritional problems, such as a shortage of vitamin B1 or B12
  • Side effects of a medication
  • Treatable infections

Other types of memory loss may stay the same over time. A few of these sometimes improve on their own. These include:

  • Head injury
  • Mild cognitive impairment, if it is not early-stage dementia

Mild cognitive impairment often progresses into dementia, though not always. About 6 or 7 out of 10 people with cognitive impairment will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia disorder.

For early-stage dementia, the prognosis is much worse. Disorders that cause dementia may lead to worsening thought and memory problems, and a shortened lifespan.

Living With Memory Loss

Memory loss can make life more challenging, but it doesn’t have to define your life. Some things you can do to lower the day-to-day burden of memory loss include:

  • Arrange your home so that important things like keys, wallets, and valuables are always in the same place when you need them.
  • Keep a calendar or whiteboard in your house  to track your schedule. Check things off when you do them, in case you forget.
  • Get rid of excess clutter in your home and furniture you don’t use.
  • Simplify your medical regimen as much as you can. Make appointments at the same time on the same day of the week, and ask your doctor to simplify your medicines so you can take them all at the same time.
  • Arrange for your bills to pay automatically.
  • Keep a mobile phone with you, and program important numbers into this phone


There is no official guideline for memory screening, but the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America recommends screening in people who are at risk for dementia or memory loss. The at-risk population includes anyone who:

  • Is concerned about memory loss
  • Has symptoms of memory loss
  • Has a family history of dementia

If you do not have memory problems now, you may still want to undergo screening to establish a baseline. That way, if you need testing in the future, the tester will know how you scored when you were healthy, for comparison.

Memory screening uses a series of questions asked face-to-face by a health care professional such as a doctor, a psychologist, a social worker, or a pharmacist. These questions will help asses:

  • Your memory
  • Your language skills
  • Your ability to think
  • Other mental skills

The person testing your memory will review your confidential results after the test and discuss whether you need to follow up with a doctor for more thorough testing.22[AFA/process/bull5,6]

Memory screening is available throughout the United States. To find a screening site near you, visit



There are steps you can take to help lower your risk of memory problems. These include:

  • Keep your body active. Exercise supports blood flow to the brain and reduces risk factors such as heart disease and diabetes.
  • Keep your mind active. Activities like reading, playing games, and learning new skills can exercise your brain and keep it healthy.
  • Stay social. Interacting with people can reduce stress and lower your risk of memory loss.
  • Eat healthy. Get plenty of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids (found in nuts and fatty fish such as salmon).
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep keeps your mind healthy and is essential to the way your brain stores memories.
  • Don’t smoke. A good oxygen supply is essential to your brain’s health.
  • Drink in moderation, if at all. Alcohol abuse can harm your memory as well.

Medication And Treatment

The first step in treating memory loss is often to treat the underlying condition, if there is one. Treatable health problems that could cause memory loss include:

  • Depression
  • Vitamin B1 or B12 deficiency
  • Thyroid problems
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Dehydration
  • Side effects of a medication
  • Stress
  • Infections
  • Lack of sleep

Often, when the condition is treated, the memory problem goes away. If the problem doesn’t go away, or the doctor can’t find a treatable cause, then your doctor may prescribe a cholinesterase inhibitor, which can help protect your memory by preserving a chemical in your brain called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine helps transmit information between the nerve cells your brain uses to store and access memories.

Cholinesterase inhibitors include:

  • Aricept (donepizil)
  • Exelon (rivastigmine)
  • Razadyne (galantamine)

Cholinesterase inhibitors delay progression of memory loss in about half of the people who take them.

If your memory loss becomes severe, your doctor may prescribe Namenda (memantine) as well to further slow the disease progress. Sometimes doctors prescribe Vitamin E as well

Your doctor may also prescribe other treatments to help with specific symptoms, such as trouble sleeping.

For dementia or other severe memory problems, treatment may also include occupational therapy and changes to the home environment to reduce risks and simplify everyday life.

Complementary and Alternative Treatment

Several types of mental exercise are believed to be helpful in keeping your mind and your memory healthy. These include:

  • Strategy games such as chess or bridge
  • Word games like Scrabble or Boggle
  • Puzzles, like crosswords or Sudoku
  • Reading books or newspapers
  • Learning new things
  • Challenging projects or hobbies, such as gardening, quilting, or playing a musical instrument

Ginkgo biloba extract is sometimes used as an herbal treatment for memory loss. Study results with ginkgo and other herbal treatments for memory loss are mixed at best. 

Other complementary and alternative treatments that are often used for memory problems include:

  • Amino acids such as arginine, carnitine, and taurine
  • Plant extracts such as brahmi, garlic, and ginseng
  • Other substances, including glutathione, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids

A recent experiment has found some benefit from a special drink made from antioxidants found in chocolate, but more study is needed to test its use.

When To Contact A Doctor

If you are concerned about your memory, memory screening is available in most states and Canada.

Contact your doctor if a screening test shows cause for concern, or if you or a loved one notice frequent or serious memory lapses.

Questions For A Doctor

When you go to see your doctor, it’s good to have a list of the questions you’d like to have answered. Take a moment to write down some of the things you want to know. Your questions for your doctor might include some of these:

  • Do you know what is causing my memory loss?
  • How long will it take to know for sure?
  • Does it look like my memory problems will get worse?
  • Will treatment help?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Do you recommend any lifestyle changes?
  • What else can I do?
  • Is there anything else I should know about memory loss?

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