Memory Loss: When To Be Concerned And What To Do About It

By Nicole Beasley |Updated July 19, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

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Everyone has that moment when they realize they have forgotten something, whether small or important (or as it relates to eidetic memory). If you have a family history of memory problems, dementia, or Alzheimer's, those lapses in memory can be even scarier. This is especially true if they become more frequent.

One thing to keep in mind about memory loss is that it happens naturally over time. As we get older our memories begin to fail somewhat. A bit of memory loss, especially short-term memory loss, is normal as you age, starting as young as fifty. However, extensive memory loss could be a sign of something much more serious.

Any time you or a loved one are experiencing severe memory loss, you should seek out medical attention. It can be difficult to know who to talk to, where to go for help, or whether or not you need help. The following information will be very helpful in determining when you should be concerned and what you need to do next.

Memory Loss Causes

There are many causes of memory loss. Some memory loss is temporary and can be corrected, while other types can be permanent. You may have issues with short-term memory loss, loss of past memories, or have the inability to make new memories. If you or a loved one are having problems with memory of any kind, it is a good idea to do some research and seek out professional assistance.

Some of the causes of memory loss can be remedied, and memory can return. Other causes could be temporary but require time to heal. Still other causes of memory loss are permanent, and can only be treated as best as possible by medical professionals.

Statins

There has recently been a link between statins and memory loss. Statins are a certain type of medication used for lowering cholesterol. Millions of people take a form of statin, and studies have been done in recent years to try to discover the link, if any, between statins and memory loss.

Some researchers believe that there is no link between statins and memory loss, and that there are simply so many people on the drug that a large percentage is bound to have memory problems. However, a recent study published by Harvard had mixed results.

In the study about 400,000 people on statins, 400,000 people on other cholesterol medications, and 26,000 people on no cholesterol medications were observed over a twenty-five-year period. The findings were that the people not on cholesterol medications did not, for the most part, report memory problems, but a large percentage of the people on any cholesterol medication did.

This would suggest that either all cholesterol medications can cause memory loss, which is unlikely, or that it is simply coincidence. Statins and other cholesterol medications work very differently and have a very different makeup, so it is unlikely that they would have the same side effects. It is more likely that memory problems are simply more likely to be reported by people who see a doctor frequently due to maintenance medications.

Other Medications

There are many other medications that have definitely been linked to permanent or temporary memory loss. These drugs include anti-depressants, anti-histamines, sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxers, tranquilizers, and certain stronger pain medications. For this reason, it is important to report all medications you currently take or had been taking for a long period of time to your doctor when you talk to them about your memory loss.

Most of these medications will not cause memory loss right away. The memory loss that you may experience with use of these medications will be gradual at first, increasing more quickly over time. It generally takes several years of use of these medications to lead to significant memory loss. Often if you catch the signs of memory loss early you can stop the medications and memory will return.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse

Long-term alcohol and drug abuse have been linked to memory loss. When alcohol or drugs are used excessively over a long period of time it can lead to short-term memory loss. It can also lead to a loss of memories of the past, and you may have trouble remembering things that happened while intoxicated or affected by the drug.

Sometimes this memory loss recedes with time if one becomes and stays sober. Short-term memory usually improves with long-term sobriety. However, one may still have trouble recalling parts of the past, particularly points in time when the alcohol or drug abuse was most severe.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can lead to temporary short-term memory loss, or an inability to access past memories. The amount and quality of sleep are both important. You must get enough uninterrupted sleep that your body and brain can function normally. If you frequently wake in the night or don't sleep at least eight hours a day, you are likely to have memory problems over time. This memory loss is usually temporary if healthy sleep patterns can be established and sleep deficit remedied.

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There are many things that can cause one to become sleep deprived. Underlying causes could be simple insomnia, side effects of medications, or even sleep apnea. Often sleep apnea patients report short-term memory loss before they begin use of a CPAP machine. Once these underlying causes of sleep deprivation are identified they can be remedied, and memory can improve.

Depression And Stress

Depression, stress and anxiety get in the way of focus and concentration, which can cause short-term memory loss and make it difficult to access past memories. This memory loss is temporary and is usually remedied by eliminating the depression and anxiety. Anti-depressants can be helpful in this endeavor, but because they too can cause memory loss it is a much safer bet to remedy depression and stress with therapy and coping techniques.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies can have an effect on how well the brain functions and can lead to problems with memory. You must get enough nutrients, including fats and proteins, for the brain to function properly. Most specifically, drastic deficiencies in B1 and B12 can lead to short-term memory loss. Supplements can often remedy this situation and allow memory to return. You may also consider speaking to a nutritionist to see where you can add these important nutrients in your diet.

Head Injuries

Head injuries often lead to short-term or long-term memory loss. Complete amnesia can occur with a head injury, just like you see in the movies where someone takes a blow to the head and forgets who and where they are. Much more frequently the memory loss only affects a short time period before the accident.

Certain head injuries can also lead to an inability to make new memories, and extreme problems with short-term memory. Sometimes head injuries can cause one to forget names and places but remember certain major life events. The memory loss that can occur with a head injury is largely unpredictable, and really depends on what areas of the brain were affected.

Most memory loss with a head injury is temporary. Often as the brain and body heal from the trauma memory does return. However, in some cases, memory loss after brain trauma is permanent. As the brain heals, it can be helpful to exercise the mind with brain teasers and memory games that can help rebuild those "muscles" of the brain and allow memory to return.

Stroke

Stroke occurs when a blood vessel leading to the brain is blocked, or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Stroke victims often have short-term memory loss. Unless the stroke is very severe, most stroke victims can remember things from the past, especially the distant past. However, they have trouble remembering things from day to day, or even moment to moment. They may repeat themselves frequently or forget what they had to eat that day.

The amount and type of memory loss that can be seen with stroke patients really depends on the type and severity of the stroke. The doctor who treated you or your loved one for the stroke is in the best position to test memory and determine if that is the underlying cause of the memory loss.

Alzheimer's Disease And Dementia

One of the leading causes of memory loss is Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Alzheimer's disease causes memory loss over a period of time, gradually worsening. The short-term memory is the first to suffer, then memories of the past can escape patients. They may completely forget who they are, and who their loved ones are. Eventually they may even forget how to swallow.

Dementia is the end result of Alzheimer's, and the term is used to describe memory loss so severe that it interferes with daily activities. There can be many other causes of dementia as well, including severe and prolonged alcohol or drug abuse, or other damage to the brain. With dementia, brain cells are actually deteriorating and the brain cannot function as it once did. Sometimes the cause of the dementia is unknown, but it can be just as devastating.

Other Causes

There are a few other less common causes of memory loss. Certain illnesses such as AIDS, syphilis, and tuberculosis can cause memory loss if they become severe and last for a long period of time. These illnesses cause damage to the brain, which can cause loss of memory.

Sometimes the exact cause of the memory loss is unclear, even to doctors. Even with extensive testing and research into the medical history of the patient, no clear cause of the memory loss can be found.

Generic memory loss may be described as having unknown cause or conditions resulting in partial or complete loss of memory. It can refer to amnesia of an unknown cause, or abnormal clinical results that could be the cause of the memory loss but don't fit with other known diagnoses.

Warning Signs And Symptoms

Signs of memory loss can be concerning, but often a bad short-term memory is nothing to be concerned about. Many people have trouble with remembering what they did with their keys, even when they are in their hand. People forget important upcoming events, or to make an important phone call. With all of the potential causes for temporary short-term memory loss, frequently it is nothing to be concerned about.

However, if you see certain warning signs and symptoms from yourself or your loved ones, you'll probably want to consult a doctor as soon as possible to determine the cause and extent of the memory loss. Severe impairment of the mind or memory can be a sign of an underlying cause that requires immediate treatment, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Speed Of Memory Loss

If memory loss is sudden, this can be a warning sign that something is seriously wrong. The patient may have had a small stroke that went undetected, or another cause could be to blame. Sudden onset of memory problems is definitely cause for concern, and should be followed up with medical care as soon as possible.

Much more frequently memory loss is gradual. However, the speed of which it develops can increase over time. The patient may begin to notice that they are forgetting little things and having problems with short-term memory but think nothing of it until it becomes severe and frequent. While it is important to address any memory loss with your doctor, losses of this type can be harder to determine and diagnose.

Inability To Perform Tasks

One of the biggest warning signs that should point to the need for action is if the patient is unable to perform daily tasks due to their memory loss. Memory loss so severe that it prevents you or your loved one from basic self-care tasks is definitely cause for concern. For example, you may discover that your loved one has been forgetting to eat, or eating too much because they forgot they have already eaten.

The loss of memory of how to do things for oneself is the most debilitating type of memory loss. It can be sudden or gradual. But, when you notice that your loved one is not able to care for themselves or perform basic daily tasks like cooking and cleaning, you need to make sure that they are getting the help they need.

Social Issues Related To Memory Loss

Extensive memory loss can lead to many social issues leading to depression, anxiety, and seclusion. Many people who have trouble remembering when they are supposed to call or visit someone can become anxious that they are letting their family down. Some people develop depression because they don't remember that their loved ones have visited or called, and they feel alone.

When someone is having a hard time carrying on a typical conversation, it is also time to seek help. If they cannot remember what was said from one moment to the next, often repeat themselves or tend to forget entire conversations soon after having them, it can put a huge strain on their emotional state. To avoid further problems, help should be sought out quickly.

What To Do Next

If you or a loved one is having severe or sudden problems with memory loss, you should seek out help right away. A licensed psychologist can help administer simple memory tests to determine the severity of the memory loss. These tests can indicate whether or not further medical intervention is required. If memory loss is caused due to alcohol or drug abuse, sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, or depression, a therapist can help resolve these issues so that memory can return.

 
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