Our brains are always sorting, storing and retrieving information. It’s a busy job, and it’s normal for things to fall through the cracks.
But not all memory loss is normal. Sometimes, memory loss can be linked to specific causes and even be a sign of a bigger problem. If you’re wondering if you or a loved one should see a doctor about memory loss, here’s what you need to consider. FEATURED PARTNER OFFER Partner Offers feature brands who paid Forbes Health to appear at the top of our list. While this may influence where their products or services appear on our site, it in no way affects our ratings, which are based on thorough research, solid methodologies and expert advice. Our partners cannot pay us to guarantee favorable reviews of their products or services
FEATURED PARTNER OFFER
Partner Offers feature brands who paid Forbes Health to appear at the top of our list. While this may influence where their products or services appear on our site, it in no way affects our ratings, which are based on thorough research, solid methodologies and expert advice. Our partners cannot pay us to guarantee favorable reviews of their products or services
What Is Memory Loss?
We all have times when we forget where we put our keys. But memory loss can take many different forms—from mild memory lapses to longer-term memory loss.
“Memory loss is a term that describes a variety of different cognitive complaints,” says Jason Karlawish, M.D., professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy, and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, co-director of the Penn Memory Center and author of The Problem of Alzheimer’s: How Science, Culture, and Politics Turned a Rare Disease Into a Crisis and What We Can Do About It.
“One of those complaints may be trouble remembering information,” says Dr. Karlawish. “But folks who complain about memory loss are often having troubles with other cognitive abilities like attention or concentration or language. Whatever the actual problem, it’s concerning if it’s creating inefficiencies or disabilities in daily activities.”
There are different kinds of memory loss, each with its own symptoms and causes.
Short-Term Memory Loss
Your short-term memory stores information for up to 30 seconds. With short-term memory loss, you forget things you’ve done recently.
Symptoms of short-term memory loss include forgetting:
- Recent events
- Where you put something
- Something you saw or read recently
- That you already asked a question
Short-term memory loss can be a normal part of aging or a sign of something more serious. If memory loss has you or a loved one worried about your cognitive health, talk to your doctor.
Long-Term Memory Loss
Long-term memory keeps track of information over time. It provides unlimited storage of events, facts and understanding of how to complete tasks.
Long-term memory can weaken with age, and that’s normal. Typical brain aging can result in slower processing speeds, potentially making it more challenging to multitask. But memory, skills and knowledge usually stay steady. Normal, age-related changes associated with memory include:
- Having trouble finding the right word
- Losing things from time to time
- Occasionally forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later
But losing more of these skills can signal a serious problem like dementia. Long-term memory loss might look like:
- New problems with speaking and writing (like struggling with vocabulary)
- Confusing time or place (like forgetting where you are and how you got there)
- Changes in mood or behavior (like becoming confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious)
- Difficulty completing familiar daily tasks
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Some older people have problems with memory that are noticeable, but aren’t so serious that they affect daily function. These problems are known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
MCI symptoms aren’t as severe as memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. For instance, people with MCI don’t experience the personality changes that can come with Alzheimer’s. However, those with MCI may:
- Lose things often
- Forget to go to events or appointments
- Have more trouble than their peers coming up with a word
Risk of MCI increases as we age, and issues like depression, diabetes and stroke can increase that risk. MCI can also be an early sign of a more serious memory issue, so it’s important to see a doctor regularly.
What Causes Memory Loss?
Anything that impacts thinking, learning or remembering can impact memory—and that’s a long list. Here are some of the most common causes of memory loss.
Prescription drugs like benzodiazepines and anticonvulsants are linked to memory disorders. Other drugs, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitor antidepressants, newer anticonvulsants, isotretinoin and ciclosporin, are also significantly associated with memory loss.
Head trauma like concussion can lead to memory loss. A single blow to the head can cause memory loss that either stays the same or improves over time. Meanwhile, repeated blows to the head—like those from boxing or football—can cause progressive memory loss and other cognitive problems.
In hypothyroidism, the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. On the other hand, hyperthyroidism happens when the gland produces too much thyroid hormone. This hormone controls the way cells use energy, and when these levels are off, short-term memory loss can occur. If treated early, this memory loss may be reversible.
The parts of the brain relating to memory are more susceptible to alcohol-related damage than other parts of the brain. Therefore, heavy drinking can take its toll on memory. In fact, alcohol-related dementia accounts for 10% of all dementia cases, and alcohol is estimated to contribute to about 29% of all other dementia cases as well.Alcohol Effects on the Brain. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Accessed 7/12/2021. Often, once someone stops drinking, their memory loss can stabilize to some extent.
Lack of Sleep
Sleep deprivation can lead to reduced memory, and sleep apnea may promote memory loss. A recent study of almost 8,000 people found people who slept less than six hours a night in their 50s, 60s and 70s had a 30% higher risk of dementia than their peers who slept more.Sabia S, Fayosse A, Dumurgier J, et al. Association of Sleep Duration in Middle and Old Age with Incidence of Dementia. Nature News. Accessed 7/12/2021. This finding proved true across factors like demographics, behaviors and mental health.
Not enough vitamin B1 or B12 can lead to memory loss. B1, also called thiamin, is key to the growth, development and function of cells. Vitamin B1 deficiency can be linked to alcohol dependence, HIV/AIDS and some medications. Meanwhile, vitamin B12 helps keep blood and nerve cells healthy. As we age, our levels of vitamin B12 decline naturally.
About 70% of people who have cancer report cognitive problems, and about a third of people still have issues following treatment.Attention, Thinking, and Memory Problems. Cancer.Net. Accessed 7/13/2021. While “chemo brain” is a common term used to describe the mental fog that can accompany chemotherapy, other treatments can impact memory, too, such as radiation therapy, brain surgery and medications like hormone therapy or immunotherapy.
Both short- and long-term memory loss are common in older stroke survivors. Over time, memory may improve, either on its own or through rehabilitation. But symptoms can last for years and be made worse by some medications, lack of sleep and use of alcohol or drugs. Medications for related issues like anxiety, depression or sleep disorders may help address memory loss after stroke.
Mental Health Issues
Major, traumatic events can lead to memory loss, and difficulty concentrating and remembering can be a symptom of both anxiety and depression, especially in older people. These issues can also be problems for people with bipolar disorder. And while schizophrenia often causes hallucinations and delusions, it can also cause problems with short- and long-term memory. Researchers have identified a biomarker that will help them better understand and treat these memory deficits.Van Snellenberg JX, Girgis RR, Horga G, et al. Mechanisms of working memory impairment in schizophrenia. Biological Psychiatry. 2016.
Research shows that epilepsy can put people at higher risk for long-term memory loss.Epilepsy & Memory. Practical Neurology. Accessed 7/12/2021. This impairment is one of the biggest factors contributing to poor quality of life for people with epilepsy. Scientists aren’t sure if memory gets worse as seizures become more difficult to manage, and antiseizure medications can affect attention and concentration, which can impact memory.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegenerative dementia are characterized by memory loss. Abnormal brain changes cause a decline in cognitive skills that impact behavior, relationships and daily functioning. Problems with short-term memory are a symptom of dementia and can progress to long-term memory loss as it gets worse. Most of the brain changes that cause dementia are permanent. However, memory may improve if other existing issues like depression or thyroid problems are addressed.
Infections of the Brain or its Lining
Infections like HIV, tuberculosis and herpes can cause memory problems. HIV puts the function of nerve cells at risk by infecting the cells that protect and support them. The virus can also trigger inflammation that can damage the brain and cause forgetfulness. With tuberculosis, memory loss can be a complaint. However, prompt treatment can resolve these problems. Meanwhile, herpes simplex virus can cause a rare neurological disorder called herpes simplex encephalitis. This inflammation of the brain can lead to memory loss. Antiviral drugs may help if treatment is started right away.
When It’s Time to See a Doctor About Memory Loss
If you’re not sure if loss of memory warrants a doctor visit, consider:
- Does your memory loss disrupt daily activities?
- How often do the lapses occur?
- What’s being forgotten—details of a conversation, or the conversation in its entirety?
- Are there signs of confusion (such as placing the car keys in the refrigerator)?
- Is the memory loss getting worse?
“If someone is having trouble remembering the day of the week—not the date, but Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—that’s concerning,” says Dr. Karlawish. “Other concerning signs are repetitive questions: They get an answer, then several minutes later, they ask the same question. Or they repeat a story: something about a recent event, but then 20 minutes later, they tell you the same story.”
It’s not unusual for people to deny they’re having memory problems or to downplay the issue, but a prompt diagnosis is important.
“Arrive at some reasonable, common understanding that you ought to get it looked into,” says Dr. Karlawish. “They don’t have to agree on everything you’ve seen, and you don’t have to make it a confrontation. Just get to the point where you can agree that ‘Gee, it would be good to get this checked out.’ Then, the key is to go with them to the appointment.”
You don’t need to find a specialist for an initial consultation. Instead, look close to home.
“Start with a doctor who knows you well, so a primary care physician,” says Dr. Karlawish. “Ideally, people go in with someone who knows them well—a spouse, child or close friend—who can speak to what they’ve been seeing.”
At the appointment, the physician should have time to talk to both the patient and the person accompanying them to the visit. The exam should include cognitive testing and a memory loss test like being asked the day of the week.
These doctor visits can result in reassurance that all is well. They can also lead to a referral for a more detailed workup. The goal is to find any issues and address them so that you or your loved one can live their best life.
The five surprising causes of memory loss include stress (anxiety, depression), medication use, silent stroke, nutritional deficiency and sleep apnea.What diseases start with memory loss? ›
- Alzheimer disease.
- Vascular dementia.
- Lewy body dementia.
- Fronto-temporal dementia.
- Progressive supranuclear palsy.
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
The five surprising causes of memory loss include stress (anxiety, depression), medication use, silent stroke, nutritional deficiency and sleep apnea.What is the root cause of memory loss? ›
A head injury from a fall or accident — even if you don't lose consciousness — can cause memory problems. Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other problems that disrupt daily activities. Alcoholism.What is the number one cause of short term memory loss? ›
It can be caused by a number of factors, including a nutritional deficiency, sleep deprivation, depression, side effects of some medications, or dementia. If you are suffering from short-term memory loss, it is important to speak to your doctor in order to get an accurate diagnosis.