Reversible causes of memory loss

Many medical problems can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms. Most of these conditions can be treated. Your doctor can screen you for conditions that cause reversible memory impairment.

Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:

  • Medications. Certain medications or a combination of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion.
  • Minor head trauma or injury. A head injury from a fall or accident — even if you don't lose consciousness — can cause memory problems.
  • Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other problems that disrupt daily activities.
  • Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with medications.
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. A vitamin B-12 deficiency — common in older adults — can cause memory problems.
  • Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can result in forgetfulness and other thinking problems.
  • Brain diseases. A tumor or infection in the brain can cause memory problems or other dementia-like symptoms.

When to see your doctor

If you're concerned about memory loss, see your doctor. There are tests to determine the degree of memory impairment and diagnose the cause.

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions. It's good to have a family member or friend along to answer some questions based on observations. Questions might include:

  • When did your memory problems begin?
  • What medications, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements, do you take and in what doses?
  • Have you recently started a new drug?
  • What tasks do you find difficult?
  • What have you done to cope with memory problems?
  • How much alcohol do you drink?
  • Have you recently been in an accident, fallen or injured your head?
  • Have you recently been sick?
  • Do you feel sad, depressed or anxious?
  • Have you recently had a major loss, a major change or stressful event in your life?

In addition to a general physical exam, your doctor will likely conduct question-and-answer tests to judge your memory and other thinking skills. He or she may also order blood tests and brain-imaging tests that can help identify reversible causes of memory problems and dementia-like symptoms.

You might be referred to a specialist in diagnosing dementia or memory disorders, such as a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist or geriatrician.

The importance of a diagnosis

Coming to terms with memory loss and the possible onset of dementia can be difficult. Some people try to hide memory problems, and some family members or friends compensate for a person's loss of memory, sometimes without being aware of how much they've adapted to the impairment.

Getting a prompt diagnosis is important, even if it's challenging. Identifying a reversible cause of memory impairment enables you to get appropriate treatment. Also, an early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder is beneficial because you can:

  • Begin treatments to manage symptoms
  • Educate yourself and loved ones about the disease
  • Determine future care preferences
  • Identify care facilities or at-home care options
  • Settle financial or legal matters

Your doctor can help you identify community resources and organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, to help you cope with memory loss and other dementia symptoms.

June 27, 2017 See more In-depth