When memory loss is more than forgetfulness

This article was updated on December 16, 2020, to reflect updated information.

Occasional forgetfulness is normal at any age, but dementia is a serious memory problem. How do you know the difference?

  • Some memory loss is expected as you age; it's an issue if it routinely affects your daily life.
  • Physical issues can cause memory loss.
  • A brain-healthy lifestyle can minimize memory loss.

[4 MIN READ]

We’ve all been there. You know you’ve met the person standing in front of you, but their name remains just out of reach in your memory bank. Maybe you routinely misplace your keys or forget why you’ve entered a room. People tend to minimize forgetfulness – even joke about it – because it happens to everyone. But when is forgetfulness a sign of a more severe memory problem like cognitive impairment or dementia?

Age-related forgetfulness

Occasional forgetfulness is expected at any age. As you get older, it can take longer to learn new things. It may be more challenging to recall events or words. Mild memory problems and a decline in cognitive skills often come with getting older. It’s only worrisome when it starts to interfere with your daily life.

Mild memory problems and a decline in cognitive skills often come with getting older. It’s only worrisome when it starts to interfere with your daily life.

Health-related forgetfulness and memory loss

Physical causes

Memory loss may stem from physical issues. Brain infections, clots or tumors can cause forgetfulness and temporary memory loss. So can thyroid, kidney and liver disorders. Fortunately, most of these conditions are treatable, and memory can improve.

Other factors that may lead to memory problems include head trauma, chronic drug and alcohol abuse, heavy cigarette smoking, vitamin B-12 deficiency and sleep deprivation.

Leading a brain-healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, exercise and social activity significantly reduces the likelihood you’ll suffer symptoms of mental deterioration and dementia. 

Leading a brain-healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritious diet, exercise and social activity significantly reduces the likelihood you’ll suffer symptoms of mental deterioration and dementia. Pay attention to physical and cognitive changes and get regular check-ups to avert potential memory problems.

Emotional causes

Emotions like anxiety, depression and stress can make you more forgetful than usual. In some circumstances, the resulting mental and physical issues can resemble dementia. If you’ve suffered a significant loss such as the death of a loved one or are going through a major life change like a divorce or recent retirement, you may experience confusion and lapses in memory.

Symptoms are usually short-lived and tend to fade as your circumstances and emotions return to “normal.” If you need help dealing with your emotional challenges, counseling or medication can often help ease feelings of loneliness, sadness and anger. Check the side effects of any drugs taken to treat emotional symptoms, however, as they might actually trigger memory problems.

Medication causes

Numerous medications can affect both short- and long-term memory. Some drugs interfere with key chemical messengers in the brain. Others depress signals within the central nervous system.

Common prescription drugs that can affect your memory include:

  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-seizure drugs
  • Cholesterol-lowering statins
  • Hypertension drugs (beta-blockers)
  • Incontinence drugs
  • Narcotic painkillers
  • Parkinson’s drugs
  • Sleep aids

If you’re noticing unusual forgetfulness or memory loss, research your medications to determine whether they might be at fault. Especially for older adults, the build-up of some drugs in the system can lead to memory loss – not to mention increase the risk of falls, fractures and driving accidents.

Serious memory loss

Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

If your memory loss is noticeable and more serious than is considered normal for your age, you could be suffering from amnestic MCI. People afflicted with it typically recognize their problems – as do others.

With MCI, you’re still an active participant in your own life. However, you tend to forget important events, appointments or meetings and you misplace or lose things frequently. You might also experience the frustrating tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon a little more than usual.

Though memory loss can worsen over time, not everyone who suffers from MCI will get Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers and physicians are finding that more people with the impairment develop Alzheimer’s than those without.

Dementia

The most common types of dementia are vascular dementia and dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Both forms affect your ability to think clearly and reduce your memory and reasoning skills. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Dementia is an overall term for mental ability that has become so impaired it interferes with daily life. While Alzheimer’s is a specific disease, dementia is not. Dementia is an umbrella term: Alzheimer’s disease is one of the conditions that fits under the umbrella.

  • Alzheimer’s disease causes the brain’s nerve cells to become damaged and eventually die. Although the condition can progress slowly, total care is required once it is in its later stages.
  • Vascular dementia is usually the result of a stroke (or series of mini-strokes) that reduces the blood supply to your brain tissue.

Symptoms of dementia include:

  • Repeatedly asking the same questions
  • Confusion about people, places or time
  • Forgetting or mixing up everyday words
  • Getting lost or easily disoriented, even in familiar places
  • Inability to follow directions or instructions
  • Inability to recall events or remember people
  • Placing household items in odd places (TV remote in the fridge)
  • Retelling a story in a short period of time
  • Sudden mood swings, or changes in behavior or personality
  • Taking a long time to complete familiar tasks

As symptoms worsen, dementia restricts your ability to live independently, recall memories, communicate effectively or recognize your loved ones.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re exhibiting signs of MCI or dementia, or you’re just concerned your memory loss is more than benign forgetfulness, don’t hesitate to consult your primary care provider. Your provider will conduct physical and mental tests to determine whether a more in-depth neurological evaluation is necessary.

What to expect

Your provider will typically conduct a thorough physical exam and review of your medical history. Several procedures may be needed for diagnosis, including:

  • Blood test
  • Urinalysis
  • Medication review
  • Memory and problem-solving tests
  • Advanced imaging such as CT or MRI scans

If testing confirms cognitive decline or dementia, you’ll likely be referred to an appropriate specialist (neurologist, psychologist or geriatrician) for treatment.

While memory loss may be concerning, it’s not always a sign of cognitive impairment unless it severely affects your daily life. Your doctor can help you determine whether it’s stemming from a stressful life event, a sign of aging or another health condition that needs further attention.

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Related resources

Learn the facts about Alzheimer's Disease

Do’s and don'ts for communicating with someone with dementia

For people with Alzheimer's, music brings sweet memories

Four medications that can affect your memory

Alzheimer’s Association

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

From how to identify and treat heart diseases to exercise tips to maintain an active lifestyle, the Providence Senior's Health team is committed to providing real-world advice that is hyper-relevant to helping those 65+ find ways stay young at heart

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