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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:
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.
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:
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:
Other conditions that may be at the root of your memory problems include:
Memory loss may also be caused by a treatment for another medical condition, including:
Memory loss can have many causes, and each of these causes has its own risk factors.
Risk factors for mild cognitive impairment include:
Risk factors for amnesia include:
Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia include:
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:
Your doctor will start by asking you questions about:
Your doctor will also review your medical history and give you a physical examination. During the physical exam, your doctor will probably test:
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:
Do not expect a quick diagnosis. Memory problems can be difficult to diagnose, because there are many factors that could cause the same symptoms.
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:
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:
Other types of memory loss may stay the same over time. A few of these sometimes improve on their own. These include:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Several types of mental exercise are believed to be helpful in keeping your mind and your memory healthy. These include:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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