Memory loss: When to seek help

A number of conditions — not only Alzheimer's disease — can cause memory loss in older adults. Getting a prompt diagnosis and appropriate care is important.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Everyone forgets things at times. Perhaps you misplace your car keys or forget the name of a person you just met.

Some degree of memory loss, as well as a modest decline in other thinking skills, is a fairly common part of aging. There's a difference, however, between typical memory changes and memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related conditions. And sometimes memory symptoms are the result of treatable conditions.

If you're having memory loss, talk to your healthcare professional to get a diagnosis and appropriate care.

Memory loss and aging

Typical age-related memory loss doesn't cause a major disruption in your daily life. For example, you might occasionally forget a person's name, but recall it later in the day. You might misplace your glasses sometimes. Or maybe you need to make lists more often than in the past to remember appointments or tasks.

These changes in memory are generally manageable and don't affect your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.

Memory loss and dementia

The word "dementia" is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms. These symptoms include changes in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time, and affects a person's abilities in work, social interactions and relationships.

Often, memory loss that disrupts your life is one of the first or more recognizable symptoms of dementia. Other early symptoms might include:

  • Asking the same questions often.
  • Forgetting common words when speaking.
  • Mixing up words — saying the word "bed" instead of the word "table," for example.
  • Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe.
  • Misplacing items in odd places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer.
  • Getting lost while walking or driving in a known area.
  • Having changes in mood or behavior for no clear reason.

Diseases that cause damage to the brain that gets worse over time — and result in dementia — include:

  • Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia.
  • Vascular dementia.
  • Frontotemporal dementia.
  • Lewy body dementia.
  • Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy.
  • A combination of several of these types of dementia, known as mixed dementia.

The disease process, known as pathology, of each of these conditions is different. Memory loss isn't always the first symptom, and the type of memory issue varies.

Mild cognitive impairment

This involves a notable decline in at least one area of thinking skills, such as memory. The decline is greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment doesn't prevent you from doing everyday tasks and being socially engaged.

Researchers and healthcare professionals are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually worsens to dementia due to Alzheimer's disease or another condition causing dementia.

For people with typical age-related memory loss, symptoms often don't get much worse. People with age-related memory loss also don't develop the spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.

Reversible causes of memory loss

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

Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:

  • Medicines. Certain medicines or combinations of medicines can cause forgetfulness or confusion.
  • A minor head injury. A head injury from a fall or an accident — even if you don't lose consciousness — can cause memory issues.
  • Emotional conditions. Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms that disrupt daily activities.
  • Alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder can seriously impair mental ability. Alcohol also can cause memory loss by interacting with medicines.
  • Too little vitamin B-12 in the body. Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. Not enough vitamin B-12 — common in older adults — can affect memory.
  • Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland, known as hypothyroidism, can result in forgetfulness and other symptoms related to thinking.
  • Brain diseases. A tumor or infection in the brain can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms.
  • Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea that is not treated can affect memory. This can be improved with treatment.

When to see a doctor

If you're concerned about memory loss, seek medical care. There are tests to determine the degree of memory loss and diagnose the cause.

A member of your healthcare team 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 symptoms begin?
  • What medicines do you take and in what doses? This includes prescriptions, medicines you get without a prescription and dietary supplements.
  • Have you recently started a new medicine?
  • What tasks do you find hard?
  • What have you done to cope with memory loss?
  • 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 a stressful event in your life?

In addition to giving you a physical exam, your healthcare professional is likely to give you question-and-answer tests. These tests help judge your memory and other thinking skills. You may need blood tests, brain-imaging scans and other tests that can help pinpoint reversible causes of memory loss and dementia-like symptoms.

You might be referred to a specialist in diagnosing dementia or memory conditions, 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 hard. Some people try to hide memory loss, and sometimes family members or friends compensate for a person's loss of memory. Some people aren't aware of how much they've adapted to the changes.

Getting a prompt diagnosis is important, even if it's challenging. Identifying a reversible cause of memory loss enables you to get the right 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 choices.
  • Settle financial or legal matters.

Your healthcare team can help you find community resources and organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association. These resources and organizations can help you cope with memory loss and other dementia symptoms.

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April 03, 2024 See more In-depth

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