OHSU

Causes of Memory Loss and Other Related Problems

Alzheimer's disease 

Sometimes I forget things. Should I be concerned?
Everyone forgets things. How many times have you lost your car keys or forgotten the name of a person you just met?

Forgetfulness tends to increase with age, but there's a big difference between normal absent-mindedness and the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Normal aging and memory loss
Normal age-related memory loss doesn't prevent you from living a full and productive life. You just need more time to remember a name or make lists of things you plan to do. You're aware that you're forgetful and may even joke about it.

People with memory loss due to something other than normal aging may feel that something's not quite right, but they're unable to pinpoint what's bothering them. Rather than call attention to a memory lapse, they may become more withdrawn or try to hide their mistakes.

Alzheimer's disease and memory loss
Memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease gets worse over time, but it certainly isn't the only symptom of the disease. Some of the earliest signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over.
  • Difficulty remembering common words when speaking.
  • Mixing up words — saying "bed" instead of "table," for example.
  • Being unable to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe.

Other early signs include:

  • Misplacing items and putting them in the wrong places, such as putting a   wallet in the refrigerator.
  • Getting lost on familiar streets.
  • Going through sudden changes in mood or behavior for no clear reason.
  • Becoming less able to follow directions.

Causes of memory loss that can be reversed

Many other medical problems cause symptoms similar to Alzheimer's. That's why it's so important to consult a doctor if you've noticed memory failures or unusual mood swings in yourself or in someone close to you. Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:

Medications

Sometimes, a single medication causes side effects similar to Alzheimer's disease symptoms. Drug interactions, which sometimes occur in people taking a number of medications, can also cause confusion and forgetfulness. Medications that can affect your memory include:

  • Pain medication
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Sedatives

Be sure to give your doctor a list of all medications you use, including herbal remedies and over-the-counter items.

Minor head trauma or injury

Sometimes you can lose consciousness (awareness) after a fall and not realize it. See your doctor if you:

  • Find an unexplained, tender lump on your head.
  • Start to feel mentally fuzzy after what seems like a minor fall.

Depression or other mental health disorders

You can become forgetful or confused from stress, anxiety or depression, particularly if you're older. When the sadness or stress passes, the symptoms go away too. Your doctor can use neurological (brain and nervous system) and psychological (mental health) evaluations to test you for depression.

Alcoholism

Long-term alcoholism can seriously harm your mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with your medicines.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency

Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. A lack of vitamin B-12 — common in older adults — can cause memory problems.

See your doctor

If you're concerned about memory loss, see your doctor. He or she can help determine the cause of your memory loss.

Prepare a list of questions to make the most of your time with your doctor. List questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. Basic questions include:

  • Are my symptoms caused by normal aging, or is it a sign of something more serious?
  • What are the possible causes of memory loss besides Alzheimer's disease?
  • Is the condition likely temporary or long term?
  • What tests do you suggest?
  • Should I consult a specialist? What will that cost, and will insurance cover it?

Other questions to ask your doctor:

  • What's the best plan of action?
  • What are the alternatives to the primary approach being suggested?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine that may be prescribed?
  • Is there anything I shouldn't do?
  • What results can I expect?
  • Can I wait to see if the condition goes away on its own?
  • What kind of follow-up, if any, should I expect?
  • Are there brochures, other printed material or Web sites to look at?

Many things can cause forgetfulness, and a number of them may be able to be reversed. Work with your doctor to determine what's going on with your memory and what can be done about it.

Dementias other than Alzheimer's disease

Although Alzheimer's disease is by far the most common type of dementia, there are other types. Each type has specific symptoms and causes. The most common are:

  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Primary progressive aphasia
  • Lewy body dementia and vascular dementia

Learn more about Frontotemporal Dementia

Learn more about primary progressive aphasia