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What causes memory impairment? 18 possible conditions

What Is Memory Change?

Memory change, or memory loss, is partial or complete loss of memory caused by a physical or psychological condition. Memory loss can be temporary or permanent. Memory loss ranges from temporarily forgetting a simple fact to not knowing your own name. A variety of different factors cause memory changes. It is important to know the underlying cause of memory loss so that the proper treatment can be given.

What Causes Memory Change?

Many people experience a mild form of memory change as they age. Signs of typical age-related memory change include:

  • forgetting to pay a monthly bill
  • forgetting what day of the week it is, but then remembering it later
  • losing things from time to time
  • sometimes forgetting which word to use

The causes of more serious memory change are divided into reversible and permanent causes. Reversible causes are temporary conditions that either resolve on their own or can be cured with the proper treatment.

Possible reversible causes of memory loss include:

  • Medications: One or more medications you are taking may cause you to develop memory changes.
  • Minor Head Trauma: Injuries to the head, even if you remain conscious, can result in memory problems.
  • Alcoholism: Consistent and long-term alcohol abuse may significantly impair memory.
  • Vitamin B-12 Deficiency: Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells. A deficiency in vitamin B-12 may lead to memory loss.
  • Depression and Other Psychological Disorders: Depression, stress, and other mental health problems are linked with confusion, concentration lapses, and forgetfulness.
  • Tumors: Though rare, brain tumors can cause memory loss.
  • Hypothyroidism: Your thyroid produces a hormone that is essential for energy metabolism. If your body is unable to produce enough thyroid hormone, you may develop memory changes.

Irreversible causes of memory loss are often linked to dementia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dementia is a combination of deficiencies affecting memory, thinking, calculation, learning capacity, judgment, language, and emotional status.

Common causes of dementia are:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease: Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia (Alzheimer’s Association).
  • Vascular Dementia: Vascular dementia occurs when a patient has a stroke or another condition or event disrupts the brain’s blood supply. This is the second most common cause of dementia (Alzheimer’s Association).
  • Lewy Body Dementia: Lewy bodies are abnormal proteins that form in the brain. According to the Mayo Clinic, Lewy body dementia is the cause of 10 to 22 percent of dementia cases (Mayo Clinic, 2013).

Other diseases that cause dementia by damaging the brain include Huntington’s disease, HIV, and late-stage Parkinson’s disease. Injuries to the brain may also cause dementia.

How Is Memory Change Diagnosed?

When memory changes begin to interfere with daily activities, contact a doctor. Prompt diagnosis can lead to a treatment regimen that may help limit or control memory loss. 

During the appointment, the doctor will ask the patient a number of questions A family member or another caregiver should be present in case the patient is unable to answer some of the questions.

The doctor may ask:

  • When did you start experiencing memory changes or memory loss?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Have you recently started taking a new medication?
  • What have you done to cope with the memory problems?
  • Do you drink alcohol?
  • Have you recently been sick?
  • Are you depressed, or are you experiencing unusual levels of stress?
  • Have you injured your head?
  • What is your daily routine? Has that routine changed recently?

Answers to these questions, along with a physical exam and some other tests, will help your physician identify the cause of your memory changes.

How Is Memory Change Treated?

Without treatment, memory changes can decrease a person’s quality of life. Difficulty communicating, anger, and depression are common side effects. Memory loss may prevent people from eating at the right times, which can lead to malnutrition, and from properly taking care of their health. Patients who do not receive treatment for severe dementia are at a high risk for accidental death.

Treatment for memory changes depends on the underlying cause. If the memory changes are slight, trying new things that challenge the mind may help. Puzzles, learning a new language, or reading more may help reverse some normal age-related memory changes. Remember that severe memory loss is not a normal consequence of aging.

For reversible memory loss, doctors will attempt to treat the underlying condition. Once treated, patients usually recover from their memory changes.

Permanent memory loss is treated with medications and psychotherapy.

Medications that are typically used to slow the rate of memory loss include: donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and memantine (Namenda)

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.