Everyone occasionally experiences forgetfulness. Mild memory loss
tends to increase with age and is generally no cause for concern. But progressive
memory loss due to illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease can be serious.
Consult your doctor if memory loss starts to affect your daily life,
or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms. Noting what type of memory loss you
have will help your doctor determine its cause.
Many causes of memory loss are treatable if diagnosed early. If
not diagnosed and treated, some illnesses will progress and make treatment more
Memory Loss and Aging
As you age, you may find that you have memory lapses from time to
time. You may forget the name of someone you just met, or you may misplace
things more often. Perhaps you rely more on lists and calendars to remember
chores and appointments. Memory loss from normal aging doesn’t affect your
ability to function at work or at home.
Coping with Memory Loss
Coping with Your Own Memory Loss
If your memory is not as sharp as it once was, a few simple
adjustments can help you with your daily activities.
- Use lists for chores.
- Keep a checklist of medications and when they
should be taken. Some people find “pill sorters” helpful. You can purchase
these at your local pharmacy, and they will help you remember whether or not
you took your medication.
- Keep your address book and calendar up to date.
- Keep your home organized and easy to manage.
- Be socially active and engage in hobbies you
- If your memory loss is progressing or becoming
severe, make an appointment with your doctor. Ask someone you trust to go with
Coping with a Loved One’s Memory Loss
Watching someone you love struggle with memory loss can be
difficult. Depending on the severity of their condition, there are many ways
you can help. For example:
- Encourage them to visit their doctor if their
memory loss is interfering with their daily functioning. Go with them to the
- Keep a checklist of their medications and when
they should be taken.
- Help them update their address book and
- Help them organize their home.
- Keep important items in plain sight.
- Use sticky notes around the house as reminders
of how to perform tasks.
- Encourage them to remain socially active.
- Use photographs and familiar belongings to spark
- Arrange to have someone help in the home. If
memory loss is severe, investigate home health care, assisted living, or nursing
- Be patient. Don’t take someone else’s memory
loss personally — remember that they can’t help it.
Causes of Memory Loss
Many factors can cause memory loss. These factors include:
- vitamin B-12 deficiency
- sleep deprivation
- use of alcohol or drugs and some prescription
- anesthesia from recent surgery
- cancer treatments such as chemotherapy,
radiation, or bone marrow transplant
- head injury or concussion
- lack of oxygen to the brain
- certain types of seizures
- brain tumor or infection
- brain surgery or heart bypass surgery
- mental disorders such as depression, bipolar
disorder, schizophrenia, and dissociative disorder
- emotional trauma
- thyroid dysfunction
- electroconvulsive therapy
- transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- neurodegenerative illnesses such as Huntington’s
disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), or Parkinson’s disease
Some of these conditions are treatable and, in some cases, memory
loss can be reversed.
Progressive memory loss is a symptom of dementia. Other symptoms
include difficulty with reasoning, judgment, language, and thinking skills.
People with dementia can also exhibit behavioral problems and mood swings.
Dementia usually starts gradually and gets more noticeable as it progresses.
Dementia can be caused by a variety of diseases, the most common of which is
Alzheimer’s disease impairs memory and affects reasoning,
judgment, and the ability to learn, communicate, and perform everyday
functions. People with Alzheimer’s disease can quickly become confused and
disoriented. Long-term memories are usually stronger and last longer than
memories of recent events. Although it can strike earlier, this progressive
disease generally affects people over age 65.
When to See a Doctor
Consult your doctor if memory loss is interfering with your daily
activities, threatening your safety, progressing, or accompanied by other
Memory loss can be caused by a variety of diseases and conditions
that may worsen if left untreated.
A medical exam for memory loss will include a complete medical history.
Bring a family member or trusted friend along to help you. Your doctor will ask
questions about the specifics of your problems with memory. They may also ask a
few questions to test your memory. Your doctor should also give you a complete
physical exam and ask about other physical symptoms.
Depending on the findings of the exam, your doctor may refer you
to a specialist, such as a neurologist, geriatrician, or mental health
professional. Additional tests may include:
- cognitive testing to check your thinking ability
- blood tests to look for various conditions
including vitamin B-12 deficiency and thyroid disease
- imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scan
- electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the
electrical activity of the brain
- spinal tap
- cerebral angiography, which is an X-ray to see
how blood flows through the brain
Getting a diagnosis is an important first step. Many medical
conditions that cause memory loss are treatable when identified early.