Find out what could be causing your memory loss

Get to the bottom of what’s really making you forget things

In a nutshell

While most people associate memory loss with permanent conditions such as Alzheimer’s, this isn’t always the case. In fact, there are numerous reasons why you might have memory loss, and many can be treated and even ‘reversed’.

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What’s going on?

With dementia and Alzheimer’s a pressing issue in the news today, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions when you suddenly find yourself struggling to remember where you left your keys or the name of your next door neighbour’s children. Let us tell you now – stop panicking! Memory loss isn’t always a sign that you’ve got Alzheimer’s disease or any other kind of dementia.

As well as a certain amount of slowing down of the brain as you get older, there are also other causes behind memory loss.

Did you know?
More than 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia

Causes of memory loss

Depression

One of the symptoms of depression is memory loss. Depression is a complex condition with many different factors and causes, which are both physiological and mental. One of them is a chemical imbalance in the brain which can prevent brain cells ‘talking’ to each other. The knock-on effect of this is that it also prevents the brain from creating and withholding memories.

What’s more, people suffering from depression struggle to pay attention and concentrate, which can also make it difficult to remember things. Depression can be treated – usually through a combination of medication and talking therapies – so if you’ve noticed that you’ve been feeling very low alongside any memory problems, it’s worth talking to your GP for advice.

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Anxiety and stress

If you’ve been feeling particularly worried about something, you may find you’re also struggling to retain memories. The truth is, anxiety can be an all-encompassing and very distracting problem, so it’s no wonder you have difficulties remembering what’s going on in the wider world around you. Plus, stress raises levels of a chemical called cortisol in the brain, which can inhibit the development of healthy brain connections, needed to form memories.

There are lots of different therapies that can help to ease anxiety, so talk to your doctor to see if you can be referred for one. There are also medications that can help to ease anxiety and stress.

Insomnia and sleep deprivation

We all recognise that spaced out and dazed feeling we get after a bad night’s sleep, so imagine the effect that constant insomnia can have on your memory? Lack of sleep and tiredness affects memory because it’s when we’re sleeping that our brain consolidates and stores memories. If you’re not getting enough sleep, your brain will simply not be storing the facts and events that happened to you that day. In fact, studies have shown that people who learn something and then take a nap before taking a test will score more highly than those who don’t sleep.

Insomnia can be caused by many different factors, and it’s probably best if you can find out the underlying issues that may be causing it, for example stress, diet or reaction to a certain medication. Your GP may also then be able to advise more easily on the next best course of action, including whether to prescribe sleeping pills.

Medications

Certain medications can cause memory loss as a side effect, so check the small print or talk to your GP if you’ve noticed memory problems recently and you’ve started take a particular drug. Sometimes the memory loss is triggered by a combination of certain drugs interacting with each other. Your GP should know about potential interactions, and may be able to suggest alternative medications. Find out what are the top 10 prescription drugs that can cause memory loss.

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Vitamin deficiency (B1 and B12)

A lack of certain vitamins can affect memory ability, in particular vitamins B1 and B12. Vitamin B1 is found in fish, pork, nuts and seeds, but its absorption can be inhibited by high quantities of alcohol, and a lack of it can lead to Korsakoff syndrome which is a type of dementia.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products such as milk, meat and cheese. It protects neurons – cells in the brain – and is vital to healthy brain functioning. As you get older, your ability to absorb the vitamin can slow down and so your body may be lacking.

However, memory problems are more likely to be caused by a specific illness called pernicious anaemia. It’s caused by low levels of vitamin B12 and means your bone marrow (which is what makes red blood cells) is producing cells that are too big. As well as memory loss, pernicious anaemia symptoms include slowness, confusion, irritability, apathy, fatigue and shortness of breath.

However, you can treat pernicious anaemia and so help to reduce the associated memory problems by treating the deficiency with a monthly injection of vitamin B12 administered by your doctor.

Alcohol and drug misuse

While we can all joke about how over-indulging at the pub has probably killed off a few brain cells, the truth is that excessive alcohol is toxic to brain cells. Alcohol affects the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a significant role in the formation, storage and creation of memories, and for transferring short-term memories to long-term storage.

Plus, people who are heavy drinkers often tend to have a poor diet, which is lacking in vitamins including vitamins B1 and B12, which are vital for healthy brain function (see above).

Long-time drug use can also affect memory. Drugs such as cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy mimic neurotransmitter chemicals (dopamine) in the brain, but also reduces the brain’s sensitivity to it and its capacity to produce it naturally, which can affect the ability to store memories.
In fact, alcohol and drugs aren’t the only lifestyle behaviours that can speed up memory loss – find out what else can do this here.

Thyroid problems

The thyroid gland is responsible for controlling your metabolism, which is the process whereby your body carries out chemical reactions so that it can function. If your metabolism is too fast (known as overactive thyroid), it can leave you feeling confused, and if it’s too slow (known as underactive thyroid), you can feel sluggish and depressed. So having either an overactive or underactive thyroid can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

However, thyroid problems should be properly diagnosed by your doctor, so talk to him if you’re worried. He will be able to prescribe medication to balance your metabolism, depending on whether it’s too fast or too slow.

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Head injury

A knock to the head doesn’t just leave a nasty lump or bruise. It can potentially affect your brain function and memory, too. It’s important to get yourself checked out after you’ve had a hard bump as it can lead to something called a subdural haematoma. This is basically a bruise or blood clot on the surface of the brain between the brain itself and the membrane (dura) that covers it. This can cause memory loss symptoms and very serious illness, but removing the clot should, in most cases, lead to recovery.

Anaesthesia

Sometimes having an operation where you are put under general anaesthetic can lead to memory problems. It's known as post-operative cognitive decline (POCD), and tends to last longer the general fogginess that you get immediately after waking up from an operation. POCD is a short-lived phenomenon for most people, but can last for a few months and sometimes longer for up to a tenth of people. It's thought it's down to some anaesthetic drugs causing inflammation in the brain that's similar to that seen in people with dementia. It's recommended that doctors, care workers and family members monitor their loved one closely after an operation to look out for this.

Neurological diseases

If the above have been ruled out, your doctor will consider whether your memory loss could be caused by neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia or Parkinson’s disease dementia. However, it’s worth remembering that specific memory loss isn’t the only symptom of these conditions – there are other signs too so bear that in mind if you’re worried about your memory.

Either way, whatever the cause of your memory loss, it’s well worth checking it out as there’s a good chance you could get help for it.