Everyone experiences forgetfulness. For example, it’s common to misplace keys or forget about an appointment every now and then. When forgetfulness becomes severe and starts interfering with daily life, however, it may be a cause for concern. Unusual forgetfulness, also known as memory problems or memory loss, may include the following: (1)
Forgetting or mixing up words
Forgetting or mixing up times, locations, and people
Repeating the same questions multiple times
Getting lost in familiar areas
Neglecting responsibilities (such as work or financial obligations)
Placing items in the wrong locations (such as leaving keys with kitchen supplies)
Neglecting personal hygiene (2)
Memory problems are often a normal part of aging. According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, approximately 40% of people will experience some form of memory loss after age 65. (3) If memory loss progresses, it may indicate a more serious issue, such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. (4)
Depending on the cause, memory problems can greatly impact both physical and mental health. Let’s take a closer look at different types of memory loss, possible causes, and how to cope with memory problems.
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Types of Memory Loss
Memory loss can be divided into two main types:
Short-term memory loss. Someone with short-term memory loss may struggle to remember things that occurred recently. For instance, they might forget the name of a person they just met or forget where they left their keys last night.
Long-term memory loss. This type of memory loss involves forgetting information that the brain has been storing for a long period of time. For example, someone with long-term memory loss may forget the name of a friend or family member, or they might forget details about their own background. In severe cases, they may forget how to do everyday tasks, such as grooming or dressing.
Unlike the short-term variety, long-term memory loss can greatly impede the ability to carry out daily responsibilities. As a result, it may affect work, social skills, relationships, and the ability to live independently. (5)
Aging. Over time, it naturally becomes more challenging to remember and process information. The result is minor, occasional lapses in short-term memory. Generally, age-related memory loss does not make it harder to live independently. (6)
Depression. Mental health conditions like depression can cause chronic stress, which affects short-term memory. One study shows depressed individuals especially have trouble recalling positive memories. (7)
Medications. Certain medications affect areas of the brain related to memory. These include anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, hypertension medications, and sleeping pills. (8)
Infections. Some infections, like oral herpes and pneumonia, may encourage the production of amyloid proteins in the brain. These proteins can damage nerve cells, leading to reduced memory function. (9)
Alcoholism. Extensive alcohol use affects the ability to form new, long-term memories. Over time, it can cause alcohol-related dementia, which is serious memory loss that impacts daily responsibilities. (10)
Alzheimer's disease or dementia. A leading cause of memory loss in older adults is dementia and Alzheimer's disease, which affects 6 million Americans. These conditions start with mild cognitive impairment and worsen over time. (11) Typically, Alzheimer's disease patients have a life expectancy of 3 to 11 years after diagnosis. (12)
What Helps Memory Loss
Treatment for memory loss depends on the cause. For example, if an infection or depression triggers memory problems, treating the condition can help relieve symptoms. Similarly, if the cause is medication, switching to a new drug may be effective. Some causes, like Alzheimer's disease, have no known cure. In these cases, treatment is focused on managing and delaying symptoms. (13)
No matter what the cause is, there are certain lifestyle habits that may help improve symptoms. These include the following:
Socialization. Regular social interaction can help prevent stress and depression, both of which are associated with memory problems.
Exercise. By encouraging blood flow, regular exercise can boost brain health and memory. If possible, adults should aim for 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate activity every week.
Cognitive exercise. In addition to physical activity, it's helpful to keep the mind engaged. Ideas include reading, playing word games, and completing puzzles.
Healthy eating. A great way to promote brain health is by consuming nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and low-fat proteins.
Sleep. A lack of sleep is connected to poor memory function. Generally, adults should get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night. (14)
How to Cope With Memory Loss
Dealing with memory problems isn't easy. Forgetfulness is frustrating and can impact jobs, relationships, and daily responsibilities. Here are a few ways to cope with memory loss:
Stay connected. Memory loss can affect mental health. About 40% of Alzheimer's patients develop depression. To help alleviate stress, it's important to stay socially connected with loved ones and have a support network. (15)
Improve organization. Improving organization can help manage mild memory problems and lower the risk of neglecting responsibilities. Suggestions include making to-do lists, writing tasks down, and developing a routine.
Keep busy. As mentioned earlier, some causes of memory loss (like Alzheimer's disease) cannot be cured. In the early stages, it's common for patients to dwell on their condition and worry about the future. To prevent chronic stress and worry, it's helpful to stay busy and engage in enjoyable activities, such as hobbies. (16)
If memory problems emerge, don't ignore them. Instead, speak with a doctor about the symptoms and receive an official diagnosis. After pinpointing the cause, they can devise a treatment plan designed to manage memory loss and improve the overall quality of life.
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