Memory disorders change your ability to make and recall memories. They can be caused by physical and mental health conditions, traumas, injuries, substances, or medications. Some last a few minutes. Others last a lifetime.

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Memory is among the most powerful and important brain functions. It enables you to recall your life’s most meaningful experiences. And it makes it possible for you to check off the simplest items on your to-do list every day.

Because memories are made, stored, and retrieved by structures throughout the brain, any number of brain changes can disrupt it. This article explores some of the most common memory disorders, what causes them, and how health experts diagnose and treat them.

A memory disorder is any change in your brain structures that interferes with your ability to make, keep, or recall memories. The term “memory disorder” doesn’t usually refer to day-to-day forgetfulness. It generally means memory loss that keeps you from functioning safely and effectively.

Memory disorders are often classified according to how long they last. Memory loss could be:

  • temporary, such as the kind of amnesia a person experiences after a mild brain injury
  • permanent, such as memory loss that follows a stroke
  • progressive, such as the gradual memory loss associated with dementia

Memory disorders can also be classified according to what you can’t remember. Examples include:

  • People with retrograde amnesia have trouble remembering what happened immediately before the event that caused memory loss. For example, people who have a car accident sometimes can’t recall the seconds just before and after impact.
  • People with anteretrograde amnesia find it difficult to remember new information after an event that causes a memory disorder.
  • People with dissociative amnesia might not be able to recall parts of their own history or aspects of their identity.

The symptoms of memory disorders vary depending on what’s causing the disorder. People with a memory disorder may have trouble:

  • recalling events, facts, words, or details
  • remembering the steps of a process
  • forming new memories or learning new information
  • recognizing routes, places, or people
  • expressing their thoughts through speech or writing
  • repeating questions
  • behaving in ways that can cause problems in relationships
  • feeling confused or agitated

Not everyone with a memory disorder will experience all these symptoms.

Memory disorders can result from lots of different causes. Some can be treated and the memory loss reversed. Others may permanently damage your ability to learn new things or retrieve memories you made earlier in your life.

Reversible causes

You may be able to reverse memory loss if it developed from one of these causes:

  • Medication: Taking some medications (on their own or with other medications) can affect your memory.
  • Mental health conditions: Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can make it harder for you to remember things.
  • Alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can lead to “blackout” — the inability to remember blocks of time. People with alcohol use disorder can also develop memory impairments.
  • Brain injury: Concussions, brain bleeds, swelling, skull fractures, and other injuries can cause memory loss that may be reversible as the injury heals.
  • Sleep disturbance: Sleep plays an important role in storing and organizing memories. Sleep difficulties, including sleep apnea, have been linked to a higher risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  • Infections: Some viruses, such as herpes simplex virus (HSV) and West Nile virus, can cause memory difficulties. Bacterial infections, including urinary tract infections and pneumonia, can also cause delirium and memory loss.
  • Low levels of vitamin B12: Low levels of this nutrient can cause problems with memory and other thinking skills.

Nonreversible causes

Memory loss can sometimes be permanent, or may become worse with time, when it’s caused by conditions like these:

  • Severe brain injury: Repeated concussions and serious injuries that damage the nerves, tissues, and blood supply to the brain can also cause long lasting or permanent memory loss.
  • Stroke: Depending on where in the brain a stroke occurs, it can sometimes lead to memory decline. The risk of dementia is up to 50 times higher for those who have had a stroke in the previous year.
  • Dementia: Vascular dementia, Lewy-body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia cause memory loss that worsens over time.
  • Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.

Health professionals use a variety of tools to help them diagnose memory disorders. Your doctor or health professional may ask questions about your symptoms to find out when memory loss started and how it’s affecting your life. You may be asked to take a cognitive test to pinpoint which memory skills are being affected.

You may need a physical examination or lab tests to show whether a health condition is behind the memory disorder.

It’s also possible that you’ll have a brain scan, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT). Imaging studies like these can show any areas of the brain that may have been damaged.

You may need to see a specialist, such as a neurologist, who specializes in brain function.

Treatment for a memory disorder depends on what’s causing it. In some cases, treating the underlying health condition is enough to restore your ability to remember.

There are not yet any treatments that can reverse Alzheimer’s or dementia, but some treatments can help with symptoms.

  • Medication: Cholinesterase inhibitors can help with memory functions. Over time, these drugs are likely to stop working as well for memory disorders that are progressive.
  • Occupational therapy: An occupational therapist can help you create routines to make your day-to-day life easier.
  • Speech therapy: A speech-language pathologist can help you develop memory, learning, and language skills.
  • Reminiscence therapy: A reminiscence therapist can work with you to remember the events of your life using photos, music, movies, and other aids.
  • Validation therapy: A specialist in validation therapy can offer you support and validation for the feelings you experience because of a memory disorder.
  • Cognitive stimulation therapy: A CST specialist can help build your memory skills with thinking games, puzzles, and activities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these strategies for preventing brain injuries:

  • Wear your seatbelt when traveling in a car.
  • Use protective gear such as helmets when you’re doing an activity where there’s a risk of head injury.
  • Minimize the tripping or falling hazards in your environment.

To lower your risk of dementia, the CDC recommends that you:

  • exercise regularly
  • avoid smoking
  • limit alcohol
  • maintain a moderate weight
  • treat high blood pressure and diabetes
  • correct hearing loss

If a memory disorder stems from a treatable condition, or if it results from a mild head injury, recovery may be possible.

If the memory centers in the brain have been more severely injured, memory loss may be permanent. And if a memory disorder is the result of dementia, it’s likely that memory loss will become more severe over time.

Can you prevent a memory disorder by playing brain games?

Brain games can improve your mood and stimulate your mind. They may help build thinking skills and slow memory loss if you already have dementia. Right now, there’s not enough evidence to say that playing games can prevent a memory disorder.

Is dementia hereditary?

Genes that raise your risk of dementia can run in families. Even so, only one type of dementia is passed down directly: Familial Alzheimer’s disease, which represents about 20% of all Alzheimer’s cases.

Can taking vitamins help to prevent a memory disorder?

A recent study showed that older adults who took a multivitamin daily had improved memory after three years. B-complex vitamins have been shown to delay or prevent cognitive decline.

A memory disorder can interfere with your ability to make, store, and recall your memories. It can happen as the result of a medication, infection, health condition, or brain injury.

Mild memory changes may be part of the aging process, but when memory loss disrupts your life, it may be time to seek help.