An introduction to the causes of memory loss
Memory loss can be a disturbing symptom. Forgetting something you should remember has affected all of us and as one becomes older, there can be the nagging fear that one might be suffering from the early signs of dementia.
There are many causes of memory loss. These range from being easily distracted, to serious health problems such as Alzheimer’s disease or strokes. Knowing why you have become more forgetful can often put your mind at ease as well as potentially, offer a solution to the problem.
Causes of memory loss
The most common cause of memory loss is usually simply being distracted or having poor concentration. For most of us, it is responsible for episodes of forgetfulness such as where you placed your car keys. Although potentially frustrating, it is part of normal life. Other causes include:
- Sleeping poorly – never underestimate the importance of sleep. As well as affecting many other aspects of your life, a lack of sleep can have a serious toll on your ability to remember things. It can also make it more difficult for you to concentrate which in turn contributes to poor memory
- Low mood – feeling low in mood or depressed can affect your concentration and in turn, memory. These mental states may lead to a loss of interest or inattention to the things going on around us. As information is not fully registered and incorporated into the brain, remembering what has been said or done will be difficult when this information is needed
- Stress – this affects concentration and memory in a similar way to low mood or depression. Having lots of worries, chasing deadlines, work or family problems makes it difficult for the brain to absorb new information. Being stressed also means that you can be easily distracted
- Menopause – hot flushes and night sweats are what jump to mind first when thinking about the menopause. However, many women also report that memory loss is a common symptom. The brain contains oestrogen receptors. The decline of this and other hormones during the menopausal years is said to be responsible for an increased tendency to be forgetful, as well as an array of other menopausal symptoms. Memory lapses during the menopause tend to resolve once this phase of life is over
- Poor diet – a good diet is essential for the healthy functioning of all parts of your body, including the brain. Providing your body with essential nutrients, especially vitamins B1 and B12, high quality proteins and Essential Fatty Acids, will not only make you feel better physically, but also more alert, able to concentrate and less likely to let essential pieces of information slip away from your fingertips
- Smoking – we all know that smoking isn’t the best thing for your body and the memory is yet another area of your health which can be affected by smoking. Smoking causes your blood vessels to narrow. This reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain, meaning that it cannot function as efficiently as it should do
- Alcohol – too much alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. Regular drinking can cause damage to your brain cells. Excessive amounts of alcohol (or binge drinking) can cause significant effects on your short-term memory – just try to remember events the last time you had a big night out!
- Medication – certain types of medicines can lead to memory loss. These include anti-depressants, tranquilisers or sedatives and some pain-killers. If you suspect that the medication you are taking could be causing you to be forgetful, make an appointment with your doctor to see if an alternative treatment can be found for you
- Thyroid problems – the thyroid hormone, thyroxine, regulates the body’s metabolism. Low levels of thyroxine make you feel lethargic, tired, suffer poor concentration and cause you to gain weight. In addition, abnormal levels of thyroxine affect the way your brain works, and may contribute to memory difficulties
- Illness – a major acute illness can be very traumatic for the body especially in the elderly. A chest or urine infection can lead to confusion and memory loss as can a severe heart attack
- Mental health – psychological problems and psychiatric illnesses can lead to both long and short-term memory loss. An example is not being able to recall events surrounding major psychological trauma. It is thought that this is the body’s natural mechanism for protecting itself
- Minor head injury – mild forms of head injury can lead to concussion, defined as a temporary loss of mental function after injury. Concussion does not usually give rise to substantial long-term memory loss, but can cause loss of short-term memory. Symptoms are usually mild with a quick return to full and normal function
- Major head injury – if trauma to the head is severe, damage to the brain can be significant enough to affect not only memory but other aspects of brain function such as speech, muscle coordination and mobility. Symptoms are likely to persist for longer periods of time or become permanent
- Normal ageing – this is something we don’t like to be reminded of. The function of our brain is said to start declining before we get to 30, and loss of memory is perhaps one of the most obvious signs. Being forgetful because of age does not usually become noticeable until we get to 50 or 60 years. It has to be emphasised that this type of memory loss is normal - simply part and parcel of being a little bit more mature. It should not affect your quality of life and if it does, seek help
- Dementia – the big fear when one is a bit older and becoming forgetful is that you are seeing the early signs of dementia. Thankfully, for most, this is not the case. Dementia is defined as a progressive loss of brain function, leading to memory loss, as well as the ability to think and reason. There are many causes of dementia – the most common are strokes and Alzheimer’s disease. Other causes include alcohol and drug abuse, damage to the brain and psychiatric illness. Sadly, with people living longer, dementia is becoming an increasing problem, said now to affect up to 800,000 people in the UK.
If you suffer from memory problems, are worried about your condition, think you have dementia or find that your memory loss is interfering with normal everyday activities, seek the advice of your doctor.