What causes memory impairment? 18 possible conditions

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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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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most common cause of dementia, is a progressive brain disorder. Learn about the causes, signs and research being done about AD.

Read more »

2

Stroke Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A stroke (a "brain attack") is a medical emergency in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This occurs when an artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and brain cells begin to die.

Read more »

3

ADHD Basics

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a mental disorder that causes above-normal levels of hyperactive and disruptive behaviors. The cause is unknown but risk factors include genetic predisposition an...

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4

Delirium

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Delirium is an abrupt change in the brain that causes mental confusion and emotional disruption. It makes it difficult to think, remember, sleep, pay attention, and more. You might experience the condition durin...

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5

Depression Overview

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause extreme and persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Depression type largely determines what kind of medical treatment is best.

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6

Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Also known as hypoglycemia, low blood sugar can be a dangerous condition. Hypoglycemia is rare in people who are not suffering from diabetes, the chronic disease that affects the body's ability to regulate blood sugar...

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7

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which you briefly stop breathing during sleep. The moments of apnea can occur repeatedly throughout the night. The interruption of your breathing happens may indicate a proble...

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8

Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. MS can cause varying symptoms that appear with a wide range of severity, from mild discomfort to complete disability.

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9

Hypercalcemia

Hypercalcemia is a condition in which you have too much calcium in your blood. Serious cases could cause symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, constipation, and weakness.

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10

Opioids and related disorders

Opioids are a class of drugs that include both natural and synthetic substances. The natural opioids (referred to as opiates) include opium and morphine.

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11

Encephalitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissue. Most cases are caused by viral infections. In rare cases it can also be caused by bacteria.There are two main types of encephalitis-primary and secondary. Primar...

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12

Adult Brain Tumor

A brain tumor is a collection of abnormal cells in the brain. Brain tumors can be either malignant (cancerous) or benign (unlikely to spread). However, there is a limited amount of space in the skull. Therefore, an...

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13

Post Concussion Syndrome

Post-concussion syndrome, or post-concussive syndrome (PCS), refers to the lingering symptoms following a concussion or a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI).

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14

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning is a serious and sometimes fatal condition. It occurs when lead builds up in the body. Lead is a highly toxic metal and a very strong poison. It is found in lead-based paints, including paint on the wall...

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15

Carotid Stenosis

Carotid stenosis is a narrowing or blockage of the carotid arteries. Located in the side of the neck, the left and right carotids are two large arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to your brain. You can feel you...

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16

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a type of brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The syndrome is actually two separate conditions that can occur at the same time. Usually you'll experience symptoms o...

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17

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is a hereditary condition in which your brain's nerve cells gradually break down. This affects your physical movements, emotions, and cognitive abilities. There is no cure, but there are ways t...

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18

What's In Your Head: Chronic Subdural Hematoma

A chronic subdural hematoma (SDH) is a pool (or collection) of blood on the brain's surface under the dura, which is the outer covering of the brain. It usually begins forming several days or weeks after bleedin...

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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.
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