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What Are the Main Causes of Memory Loss?

Mental Health

June 30, 2023
Memory Loss

Are you feeling like you’re struggling to remember people or places that you feel like you should know? Is a loved one starting to have difficulties remembering words during a conversation? These issues may be a sign of memory loss.

About two out of five people will experience memory loss after the age of 65. In some cases, however, memory difficulties strike at an earlier age.

Forgetfulness can have many causes. In some cases, memory loss may improve once you remove the factor that led to it. Other times, memory problems are caused by long-term health conditions.

It’s important to talk to a doctor if you feel like your ability to remember is changing. Your healthcare provider may be able to recommend solutions that boost your memory or slow down further cognitive issues.

What Does Memory Loss Feel Like?

When experiencing memory loss, you may not remember things that happened in your past, such as events that happened many years ago. Alternatively, you may have difficulty making new memories — for example, you may struggle to remember a conversation you had yesterday. However, newer memories are more likely to be affected than older ones since memories that happened a long time ago tend to be more firmly entrenched in the mind.

Memory loss may also make it harder to access memories that have already formed. This can make you forget which way to turn when driving to a place that you have been to many times before or have difficulty remembering how to make a simple meal that you’ve frequently made by memory in the past.

Because memories are often tied to emotions, a person dealing with memory loss may be able to remember feelings but not the details. For example, a loved one may feel happy after they visit with family but not remember why.

Significant Memory Loss vs. Normal Aging

You don’t have to worry about memory loss every time you misplace your keys or miss a monthly bill. The older you get, the more likely you are to experience some forgetfulness. Minor memory issues are often part of the normal aging process.

More severe memory loss, however, can disrupt a person’s life. While someone experiencing normal aging may occasionally forget what day it is, for example, someone with more serious memory loss may lose track of what time of the year it is.

You may want to see a doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms like:

  • Saying the same things over and over again or repeating the same questions
  • Regularly forgetting or mixing up words
  • Struggling to follow simple instructions
  • Getting lost in a place that used to be familiar
  • Not understanding where they are
  • Not recognizing people they used to know or forgetting names
  • Frequently forgetting appointments or failing to pay bills
  • Experiencing drastic mood changes, including sudden irritability or impulsive behavior
  • Having difficulty eating or bathing regularly

These more severe memory issues are not a part of normal aging and likely have other causes.

What Causes Memory Loss?

Memory Loss

Many factors can affect your memory, including health conditions, injuries, or medications.

In some cases, memory loss is temporary — when the factor that’s causing it is removed, your ability to remember may improve. However, memory loss is often permanent. Memory loss symptoms, duration, and treatments depend on what is causing the issue.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a condition that leads to moderate memory issues. People with this condition experience more forgetfulness than expected from normal aging, but memory loss isn’t severe enough to be considered dementia.

If you have MCI, you may frequently forget about appointments or lose objects. You may also experience changes in your sense of smell or find that you can’t move around like you used to. However, you’ll still be able to take care of yourself, and you won’t undergo personality problems like you would if you had a condition like Alzheimer’s disease.

Over time, having MCI increases your risk of more serious memory problems. Each year, about 10% to 20% of people with the condition develop dementia. However, many of those with MCI will never develop dementia, and in some cases, MCI symptoms may even gradually get better.

Types of Dementia That May Affect Memory

More severe memory loss, especially in older adults, sometimes arises as a result of dementia. This condition affects about 5% to 8% of those over the age of 60 and one-third of people 85 years old or older.

Dementia typically worsens over time. Eventually, dementia takes away your ability to do daily activities and care for yourself.

For those with dementia, other cognitive issues can also occur, in addition to memory problems. For example, a loved one with dementia may act impulsively, make poor judgments, hurt other people’s feelings, seem confused, or seem uninterested in things they used to enjoy. In some cases, dementia may also cause paranoia or hallucinations.

There are several different types of dementia, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease — The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, may be triggered by a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain, leading to worsening confusion and memory loss.
  • Lewy body dementia — This form of dementia is caused by clumps of a different type of protein and may lead to changes in cognition, behavior, and movement.
  • Vascular dementia — Vascular dementia is a condition in which blood vessels that bring oxygen to the brain become damaged, causing a person to think and move more slowly than usual.
  • Frontotemporal dementia — This condition is a rare type of dementia that often affects people before the age of 60.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — This rare brain disorder leads to memory and thinking symptoms that worsen very quickly.
  • Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy (LATE) — LATE leads to symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but it is caused by a different protein.
  • Mixed dementia — This condition occurs when you have two or more types of dementia at the same time.

Other Physical Health Conditions That Can Cause Memory Loss

You may develop memory loss after a stroke, in which blood can’t reach part of your brain, or there is abnormal brain bleeding. About one-third of those who experience a stroke have memory loss in addition to other issues such as pain, behavior changes, swallowing problems, or muscle paralysis.

Certain types of infections may also lead to forgetfulness, especially if they affect your brain. Memory loss has been reported as a result of infections like Lyme disease, syphilis, and HIV, as well as viral infections such as COVID-19.

Epilepsy, a condition that causes seizures, may make it harder to form, store, or recall memories.

Certain nervous system conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and Huntington’s disease, can cause memory loss when they damage nerve cells or other tissues in the brain responsible for creating or storing memories.

Memory problems can also develop due to severe vitamin deficiencies. For example, you may become more forgetful if your levels of vitamins B1 or B12 plummet.

Brain tumors may also cause memory problems. However, remember that brain tumors are rare, and memory loss is usually caused by other factors.

Memory Loss After an Injury

Head injuries can also lead to memory loss, especially if you experience a concussion. If your injury is minor, memory issues may be temporary and disappear as you heal. However, severe head injuries can cause permanent changes in your memory.

Memory problems may also develop indirectly after other types of injuries, accidents, or major surgeries. For example, if your heart or lungs stop working for too long, your brain might not get enough oxygen. This can damage cells in your brain, affecting your memories.

Memory Loss Caused by Mental Health Conditions

High stress levels or conditions like anxiety or depression may temporarily make you more forgetful than usual or experience other cognitive issues like difficulties focusing. Memory loss can also occur alongside conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

In some cases, experiencing a traumatic or extremely stressful event can affect your memory. People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have memory problems.

Medications, Treatments, and Substances Linked to Memory Loss

Certain types of medications may lead to forgetfulness, including:

  • Benzodiazepines (drugs often used to treat anxiety and insomnia)
  • Hypnotics (sleep aids)
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Some types of antidepressants
  • Isotretinoin (an acne medication)
  • Ciclosporin (an immunosuppressive drug)

You may know that having several drinks within the span of a single evening can make it harder to remember the night, but you may not know that long-term alcohol use can also affect your memory. If you regularly drink heavily, you are more likely to have impaired memory and thinking abilities. Abusing drugs can also have the same effect.

Several types of cancer treatments can cause memory loss as a side effect. This includes chemotherapy, certain immunotherapies, and bone marrow transplants, as well as radiation treatments to the brain or head area.

Addressing Memory Loss

Memory Loss

What do you do if you think that you or a loved one might be suffering from memory loss? The first step is talking to a doctor.

Diagnosing Memory Problems

During an appointment, your provider may ask various questions about symptoms, such as when you first began noticing changes or whether the memory issues appeared suddenly or have been gradually building up over time. These types of questions can help your provider get clues about potential memory loss causes.

Based on initial assessments, a provider may suggest certain diagnostic tests that can help confirm or rule out potential causes of memory issues. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests to look for signs of various health conditions or vitamin deficiencies
  • Imaging tests of the brain, including computed tomography (CT scans) or MRIs
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that analyzes the brain’s electrical activity
  • Cerebral angiography, a procedure that uses X-rays to look for problems with the blood vessels in the brain
  • Cognitive tests to identify related issues like confusion, concentration problems, or difficulties understanding or using speech

How Is Memory Loss Treated?

Although conditions like dementia can’t usually be cured, treatments may help lessen symptoms. For example, multiple types of medications work in different ways to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Some therapies help slow down the rate at which Alzheimer’s progresses, while others target symptoms, improving memory, focus, judgment, and other symptoms.

Memory loss caused by a stroke or brain injury may improve over time, especially if you go through rehabilitation.

If your memory issues are linked to issues like anxiety or sleeping problems, treating these underlying causes may help you remember better.

If you’re dealing with memory loss, you can also use lifestyle changes to make things a little easier to deal with. You may want to:

  • Establish a daily routine of healthy behaviors that you follow each day
  • Use to-do lists and calendars to help you keep track of everything
  • Keep track of items that you use every day, such as your keys or your wallet, by always putting them in the same location

In some cases, memory loss becomes so severe that the affected individual can no longer remember how to properly take care of themselves or safely carry out activities like cooking. In this case, it may be necessary to get the assistance of a home health aide or have the person move to a nursing home or other extended care facility where they can get personalized care.

Keeping Your Brain Healthy

Memory Loss

You can’t always prevent memory loss. However, strategies that keep your mind active may help you stay sharp as you get older. To lessen your risk of memory problems or improve existing memory loss, try the following:

  • Picking up a new activity or hobby
  • Making time to be social and spending time with family and friends
  • Engaging in a community by being active in your neighborhood, church, or another local group
  • Volunteering at a school, animal shelter, or local organization
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Limiting how much alcohol you drink
  • Being more physically active
  • Sleeping for at least 7 hours each night
  • Getting treatment for mental health problems such as depression

Memory loss can be serious, but helpful treatments exist. Make sure to talk to a doctor about any changes in memory that you or a loved one is experiencing. A primary care physician may be able to offer basic support or refer you to a neurologist, who can help determine what is causing the memory loss and find appropriate treatments.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.
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