Everyone occasionally experiences forgetfulness. Mild memory loss tends to increase with age and is generally no cause for concern. However, there is a difference between mild memory loss due to normal aging and progressive or extreme memory loss due to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Memory loss may start suddenly or come on slowly. It may affect your ability to remember recent events, events in the past, or both. You may forget a single event or all events. You may have trouble learning new material or making new memories. Memory loss may be permanent or temporary.
Consult a doctor if memory loss is beginning to affect your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms. Noting what type of memory loss you have will help you and 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 difficult.
Memory Loss and Aging
As you age, you may find that your memory fails you from time to time. You may forget the name of someone you just met, or you may misplace things more often than you used to. Perhaps you rely more on lists and calendars to remember chores and appointments. The type of memory loss associated with normal aging does not hamper 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.
- 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 enjoy.
- If your memory loss is progressing or becoming severe, make an appointment with your doctor. Ask someone you trust to go with you.
Coping with a Loved One’s Memory Loss
It can be disturbing to watch someone you love struggle with memory loss. Depending on the severity of their condition, there are things you can do to help. For example:
- Encourage them to visit the doctor if their memory loss is interfering with their ability to function on their own. Accompany them to the appointment.
- Write it down. Keep a checklist of medications and when they should be taken. Use a pill organizer if necessary.
- Help them update their address book and calendar.
- 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 memories.
- Arrange to have someone help in the home. If memory loss is severe, investigate home health care, assisted living, or nursing home options.
- 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. Among them are
- vitamin B-12 deficiency
- sleep deprivation
- use of alcohol or drugs and some prescription medications
- cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation of the brain, or bone marrow transplant
- head injury or concussion
- lack of oxygen to the brain
- some 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 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.
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 than memories of recent events. Although it can strike earlier, this progressive disease generally strikes 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 physical symptoms.
Memory loss can be caused by a variety of diseases and conditions that may worsen if left untreated.
The Medical Examination
A medical exam for memory loss will include a complete medical history. Bring a family member or trusted friend along to help you. The doctor will ask questions about the specifics of your problems with memory. He or she 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 diagnostic testing may include
- cognitive testing (mental status 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 of the head
- electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the electrical activity of the brain
- lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
- cerebral angiography (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.