Memory loss could be a sign of dementia


In this article:

  • Memory loss can be related to physical, emotional or medical causes.

  • There are more than 100 different kinds of dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

  • Learn the most common symptoms of dementia.

Have you ever looked at a person you know and been unable to retrieve their name, no matter how hard you tried? Or, while in the car, have you looked out the window and realized you drove to a completely different place than your intended destination? In many cases, these small “memory blips” may just be something to shrug off. But how do you know when memory loss is more than just a blip?

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.

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, as 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. 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, while 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.

Types of dementia

“Alzheimer’s disease” and “dementia” are not the same thing. Rather, “dementia” is a term used to describe several different symptoms of cognitive impairment. Alzheimer’s disease is just one type of dementia. The four most common types of dementia include: 

1. Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. It starts with short-term memory loss, and as the disease progresses, the person goes back in time and remembers their earlier days, rather than the most recent days. There are seven stages of Alzheimer’s, starting with simple confusion and continuing until the person has lost significant abilities, such as swallowing, and is unable to take care of themselves.

2. Lewy body dementia

This type of dementia combines the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease with those of Parkinson’s disease. People with Lewy body dementia experience both cognitive decline and stiffness in their body that can lead to tremors. They also experience visual hallucinations, and can have moments of clarity followed by times of extreme confusion.

3. Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is characterized by brain damage that can be traced back to mini-strokes that caused bleeding in the brain. People who have vascular dementia have trouble paying attention or organizing their thoughts. It can often be easy to distinguish vascular dementia from other types of dementia because it most often suddenly occurs after a stroke.

4. Fronto temporal dementia

Fronto temporal dementia is when a person experiences problems with language and has changes in their personality and behavior. People with this type of dementia slowly withdraw into themselves, losing much of the ability to feel emotions and have awareness of the needs of others.

There are many other types of dementia, some of which are hereditary and some of which are not.

Early signs of dementia

The 10 most common early signs of dementia include:

1.     Memory loss that affects day-to-day abilities

2.     Difficulty performing familiar tasks

3.     Language problems

4.     Losing sense of direction

5.     Misplacing things

6.     Mood and behavior problems

7.     Changes in personality

8.     Loss of initiative

9.     Problems with abstract thinking

10.  Impaired judgement

If you start noticing signs of memory loss in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to see a doctor right away so you can narrow down the cause.

Find a doctor

If you are looking for a provider who offers care specifically for older people and those with memory problems, you can search for one who’s right for you in our provider directory.

Download the Providence App

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make Providence’s app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your provider, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Alzheimer’s virtual tour

New research on Alzheimer’s disease

Nutrient needs in older adults


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

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