What is Memory Loss?
Memory loss is an experience of short or long term moments of forgetfulness. Brief episodes are normal as we age but if they get progressively worse it can be concerning.
When people think of memory loss, Alzheimer’s automatically comes to mind, yet only 15 percent of absent minded seniors will actually develop this condition. (1)
It’s normal for us to forget things from time to time. We might walk in a room and not recall why we went there. We could put something in a safe place and not remember where it is.
However, it is important to recognize when episodes of forgetfulness are a cause for concern.
There are many causes of memory loss, some are age related and some are caused by illnesses, medical conditions or injury.
Age Related Memory Loss
In general terms, being forgetful is considered all part of the aging process, in fact about 40 percent of people over the age of 65 will have some degree of memory loss. It might manifest as an inability to retain information or it might take longer to learn something new. (2)
It’s thought that just like the rest of our body, our brain changes as we get older. Mild forgetfulness is common and not a major cause for concern. (3)
Dementia is a progressive form of memory loss and cognitive function. As well as impaired memory, decreased motor skills, speech or the ability to plan, pay attention or reason will be evident.
This condition is caused by many things, some as a result of nerve degeneration and others due to medical conditions. Parkinson’s disease, alzheimer’s and conditions that interfere with blood flow to the brain (vascular dementia) are irreversible causes of dementia.
Other conditions which contribute to dementia like depression, medication, infections and alcoholism can be reversible.
It is also possible to have more than one type of dementia at a time, known as mixed dementia. (4)
This is the most common form of dementia and effects in excess of five million people in the US. It is an age degenerative disease with onset usually after the age of 65 years.
It occurs when the region of the brain controlling speech, thought and memory is compromised and impacts on everyday life. People with Alzheimer’s will experience memory loss and the ability to deal with familiar tasks in every aspect of life.
Judgement is impaired and changes in mood, behavior and personality become apparent. Forgetfulness is overwhelming and no matter how hard one tries, remembering where they put things is beyond reach. (5)
Mild Cognitive Impairment
This can be determined as: memory loss which is more frequent than what is considered normal for a person’s age or intelligence level. Whilst concerning, it does not noticeably impair someone’s ability to function and sometimes memory may return to normal.
It should however be monitored, about 50 percent of people with mild cognitive impairment progress to dementia. (6)
Some medical conditions can cause serious memory loss, yet once treated memory should return. These reversible conditions include;
Certain forms of medication have been associated with memory loss and can leave you confused and forgetful. These include antidepressants, benzodiazepines used to treat anxiety disorders and anti convulsants. (7)
Head Trauma/Brain Injury
Head injuries following a fall or accident can cause memory loss and can happen whether you lose consciousness.
Most often the long term effects are not permanent and memory will gradually return. (8)
Many things can happen which can leave us feeling depressed, stressed or anxious. Death of a loved one, work problems and money issues can lead to difficulty paying attention or concentrating.
The emotional impact stressful events have on people’s lives can leave them forgetful.
Other mood disorders like severe depression and bipolar disease can also cause memory loss. (9)
Excessive use of alcohol can cause short term memory loss of events taken place while inebriated. Severe alcohol abuse can result in impaired memory function. (10,11)
Some vitamin deficiencies have been associated with memory decline, in particular vitamins B and D.
Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in keeping red blood cells and nerves healthy. Deficiency of this and vitamin D can impair cognitive function. (12,13)
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can have a detrimental effect on numerous aspects of cognition. These include intelligence, speech, concentration, attention spans, and memory. (14)
A brain tumor or brain infection causes symptoms which resemble dementia. Memory loss being one of the most noticeable. (15)
The overriding symptom of memory loss is an inability to recall details that you should know. It could be forgetting important dates or events or not remembering where you have put things. You find you won’t remember routes to what were once familiar places.
You might ask the same questions time and again or rely on memory aids like lists or reminder notes. Speech could be a challenge and no matter how hard you try you might not remember the names of things.
Conversations become repetitive or you forget half way through a sentence what you were saying and veer off onto another subject. (16)
If you have issues with memory loss your doctor will initially carry out a general and physical examination. It can be advantageous to take a close friend of family member with you who can answer questions you cannot.
They will ask about your general health and want to know any medications you are taking. Other factors considered are previous medical history and diet. They will investigate your ability to carry out daily activities and changes in your behavior and personality.
Tests that may be done include those that measure your abilities in relation to memory, attention, problem solving, language and counting.
Blood and urine tests may be done to try and identify the cause of your memory loss. It could be attributable to a condition which these will pick up.
Further tests maybe done to try and identify deficits in brain function or identify causes of your condition. These include imaging scans like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) or positron emission tomography (PET).
Brain function tests include: electroencephalogram (EEG) which measures electrical activity and cerebral angiography, an x-ray showing blood flow through the brain.
Some of these tests can be repeated after a period of time to measure any improvement or degeneration of your symptoms. (17,18,19)
You may also be referred to a specialist doctor for assessment and treatment of memory loss. These include dementia specialists, social workers, geriatric psychiatrists and neuropsychologists. (20)
What is memory loss? Memory loss is an experience of short or long term moments of forgetfulness.
What causes memory loss? There are many causes of memory loss, some are age related and irreversible like dementia, alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment. Others are reversible and include brain trauma, thyroid function, alcohol use and vitamin deficiencies.
How do doctors test for memory loss? Your doctor can carry out some memory tests and take blood and urine samples for analysis. There are further imaging tests that can be be done to identify causes.
When should you go to the doctor with memory loss? If issues with your memory are affecting your everyday life then you should seek medical help. The sooner the cause is identified the easier it can be treated. You might need to speak to a doctor on behalf of a relative who is elderly and suffering memory loss. (21)
Can you prevent memory loss? Maintaining an active brain and body or remaining socially active can help prevent age related memory loss. (22)
What can relieve memory loss? Some causes of memory loss are reversible and can be relieved by treatment. Age related memory loss and associated causes cannot be stopped but you can relieve the symptoms with exercise and cognitive training. (23)
Are there any natural remedies for memory loss? The antioxidant effects of natural substances like green tea, ginkgo biloba extract, blueberries, wine and curcumin might have a positive effect on age related memory loss. (24)
Can diet affect memory loss? Following a healthy diet is one way of ensuring we get all the vitamins and minerals we need. The Mediterranean diet is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, unrefined cereals and olive oil. It recommends moderate consumption of alcohol and dairy products and low consumption of meat. It is thought to help maintain cognitive function and delay memory loss with aging. (25)
Memory loss is an experience of short or long term moments of forgetfulness. Brief spells are normal as we age, but when they get worse it causes concern.
Memory degeneration with age is irreversible but can be managed or delayed if recognized at an early stage. However, maintaining a healthy diet and exercising as well as keeping mentally and socially active can help.
There are underlying conditions which can contribute towards memory loss, usually once identified and treated could resolve the issue.
Seeing a loved one lose their memory is difficult. However, early recognition can guarantee they get the best support, quality of life and ensure their safety. Planning for the future and taking care of finances and legal issues will also put their minds at rest. (26)