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

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Many people might experience forgetfulness, but when temporary lapses in memory seem to become the norm, it can be easy to assume the worst. 

We do want to note that memory loss can happen naturally over time. A bit of memory loss, especially short-term memory loss, can be a normal part of aging and begin to progress when a person is as young as 50. However, extensive memory loss could be a sign of something serious.

Do you have concerns about your memory?

Memory loss causes

There are many potential causes of memory loss, most of which might relate to changes in or behaviors that can affect the brain. Some memory loss might be temporary and can be corrected, while other types can be permanent. The severity and long-term implications of memory loss generally relate to the cause(s) behind them. 

Below are a few common causes of memory loss that can contribute to your experience:

Statins

There has recently been a link between statins and memory loss. Statins are known by most as a certain type of medication used for lowering cholesterol, possibly making this finding more impactful. A recent study published by Harvard had mixed results on the severity of this implication—prompting many to seek explicit recommendations from their practitioners.

We do want to note: 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 25-year period. Researchers found information that suggests 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.

Other medications

Many have found that there are many other medications that have been linked to permanent or temporary memory loss. These drugs can include some antidepressants, antihistamines, sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxers, tranquilizers, and certain stronger pain medications. For this reason, it can be important to report all medications you currently take or have been taking for a long period of time to your doctor when you talk to them about your memory loss.

Most of these medications may not cause memory loss right away. The memory loss that some may experience with the use of these medications can be gradual at first, increasing more quickly over the span of several years. Taking medication and making any sort of defensive lifestyle changes recommended by your physician can be helpful ways to preserve your memory while on certain medications. 

Alcohol and substance use

Long-term alcohol and substance use may be linked to memory loss. It can also lead to a loss or degradation of long-term memories, and you may have trouble remembering things that happened while intoxicated or affected by the substance in question.

Sometimes this memory loss can recede 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 substance use was most severe.

Sleep deprivation

The amount and quality of sleep a person gets can both be important. If you frequently wake in the night or don't sleep at least eight hours a day, you may be more likely to have memory problems over time. This sort of memory loss can be temporary and avoidable through the establishment of healthy sleep patterns.

Mental health disorders

Some mental illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and others, may impact a person’s memory. In these cases, memory loss may or may not be linked to an actual inability to recall information in general. Instead, symptoms may interfere with a person’s memories at a certain time or lessen their likelihood of feeling present enough to form powerful memories. 

No matter what, if memory loss associated with mental illness is new or sudden, it may be worth speaking to a doctor about. 

Nutritional deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies can have an effect on how well the brain functions and can lead to problems with memory. The body generally needs to get enough nutrients, including fats and proteins, for the brain to function properly. 

More specifically, drastic deficiencies in B1 and B12 can lead to short-term memory loss. Supplements can sometimes support people who are in this situation, possibly allowing memory to return. You may also consider speaking to a nutritionist to see where you can add these important nutrients in your diet.

Injuries and chronic health disorders

Head injuries can sometimes lead to short-term or long-term memory loss. Complete amnesia can occur with a head injury, which is different than memory loss. Memory loss generally only affects a short time period before the accident.

Certain head injuries can also lead to an inability to make new memories and 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 can be largely unpredictable and may depend on what areas of the brain are affected. However, many might find that memory loss related to a head injury is temporary. 

Strokes can also lead to brain damage that can affect memory. A stroke can occur when a blood vessel leading to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Unless the stroke is very severe, though, most stroke victims can remember things from the past, especially the distant past. However—they may have trouble remembering things from day to day, or even moment to moment. They might repeat themselves frequently or forget what they had to eat that day.

Finally, other illnesses such as AIDS, syphilis, and tuberculosis can cause memory loss if they become severe or last for a long period of time. These illnesses may cause damage to the brain, which can in turn cause loss of memory.

Dementia

One of the leading causes of memory loss is Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. Alzheimer's disease typically can cause memory loss over some time, possibly gradually worsening. A person’s short-term memory, in this case, may be the first to falter—then memories of the past can also begin to disappear. 

Therapy and supportive treatment regimens prescribed by a provider can help many with the listed conditions to have more fulfilling experiences overall. 

Warning signs and symptoms of memory loss

Though the potential causes for short- and long-term memory loss can vary significantly, in many cases, experiencing some degree of memory loss is nothing to be concerned about. However, if you see certain warning signs from yourself or your loved ones, especially if they are sudden, you may want to consult a doctor 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 often better to be safe than sorry. Below are a few key symptoms you can look out for that might indicate memory loss stems from something bigger than the natural tendency to forget from time to time:

  • Sudden 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. 
  • Inability to perform tasks: Memory loss so severe that it prevents you or your loved one from basic self-care tasks may be cause for concern. A physician can run diagnostic tests to determine possible causes, treating 
  • Social deficits or changes in behavior: Irritability, lashing out and other behavioral changes that may make a person seem unlike themselves can be a sign that something bigger is going on beneath the surface. Whether directly related to memory loss or not, signs like these can indicate changes in cognitive function or physical wellness. 
  • Development of mental health symptoms: Extensive memory loss can change a person’s life significantly enough to lead to things like depression or anxiety disorders. Likewise, memory loss that accompanies other symptoms of mental health disorders (such as hallucinations or delusions) may itself be a sign of mental illness.

Do you have concerns about your memory?

What to do next

If you or a loved one is having severe or sudden problems with memory loss, it’s likely best to seek out help sooner rather than later. In many cases, the cause of memory loss can be remedied quickly and easily. Even in cases where it cannot, simply being aware of it and taking steps to slow its progression can be helpful.

How Can Online Therapy Help Those Experiencing Memory Concerns? In addition to pursuing appropriate medical treatment, it may be beneficial to pursue resources like online therapy for further support. Speaking with a professional about your concerns and symptoms can help you learn how to combat them over time, addressing the possible psychological symptoms that can result from the strain that memory loss can bring. Because online therapy allows you to connect with someone from the comfort of your own home, it can be a much more approachable and convenient way to find help for many. 

No matter what your memory loss may stem from or be related to, online therapy can possibly provide support. Research suggests that online therapy’s ability to address a variety of symptoms, including anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, panic disorder, and specific phobias can make it a worthwhile treatment option for many. This can be especially true for those who are experiencing time- or cost-related constraints. 

Takeaway

Memory loss isn’t always something to be concerned about, but when it appears suddenly and is accompanied by other changes, it may be worth speaking to a doctor about. Most things that cause memory loss can be addressed with minimal effort, but for more chronic concerns, long-term help and support can still be found. Online therapy can be a helpful tool to support many in adjusting to their new medical experiences. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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