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. How often have you misplaced your car keys or forgotten the name of a person you just met?

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

If you're having memory problems, talk to your doctor to get a diagnosis and appropriate care.

Memory loss and aging

Normal age-related memory loss doesn't prevent you from living a full, productive 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 disrupt 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, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time and impairs 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 signs of dementia. Other early signs might include:

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

Diseases that cause progressive damage to the brain — and consequently result in dementia — include:

  • Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia

The disease process (pathology) of each of these conditions differs somewhat. Memory impairment isn't always the first sign, and the type of memory problems varies. It's also possible to have more than one type of dementia, known as mixed dementia.

Mild cognitive impairment

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

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

Other people's memory loss doesn't progress much, and they don't develop the spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.

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.

April 19, 2019 See more In-depth

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