To diagnose amnesia, a doctor will do a comprehensive evaluation to rule out other possible causes of memory loss, such as Alzheimer's disease, other forms of dementia, depression or a brain tumor.
The evaluation starts with a detailed medical history. Because the person with memory loss may not be able to provide thorough information, a family member, friend or another caregiver generally takes part in the interview as well.
The doctor will ask many questions to understand the memory loss. Issues that might be addressed include:
- Type of memory loss — recent or long term
- When the memory problems started and how they progressed
- Triggering factors, such as a head injury, stroke or surgery
- Family history, especially of neurological disease
- Drug and alcohol use
- Other signs and symptoms, such as confusion, language problems, personality changes or impaired ability to care for self
- History of seizures, headaches, depression or cancer
The physical examination may include a neurological exam to check reflexes, sensory function, balance, and other physiological aspects of the brain and nervous system.
The doctor will test the person's thinking, judgment, and recent and long-term memory. He or she will check the person's knowledge of general information — such as the name of the current president — as well as personal information and past events. The doctor may also ask the person to repeat a list of words.
The memory evaluation can help determine the extent of memory loss and provide insights about what kind of help the person may need.
The doctor may order:
- Imaging tests — including an MRI and CT scan — to check for brain damage or abnormalities
- Blood tests to check for infection, nutritional deficiencies or other issues
- An electroencephalogram to check for the presence of seizure activity
Treatment for amnesia focuses on techniques and strategies to help make up for the memory problem, and addressing any underlying diseases causing the amnesia.
A person with amnesia may work with an occupational therapist to learn new information to replace what was lost, or to use intact memories as a basis for taking in new information.
Memory training may also include different strategies for organizing information so that it's easier to remember and for improving understanding of extended conversation.
Many people with amnesia find it helpful to use smart technology, such as a smartphone or a hand-held tablet device. With some training and practice, even people with severe amnesia can use these electronic organizers to help with day-to-day tasks. For example, smartphones can be programmed to remind them about important events or to take medications.
Low-tech memory aids include notebooks, wall calendars, pill minders, and photographs of people and places.
Medications or supplements
No medications are currently available for treating most types of amnesia.
Amnesia caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome involves a lack of thiamin. Treatment includes replacing this vitamin and providing proper nutrition. Although treatment, which also needs to include alcohol abstinence, can help prevent further damage, most people won't recover all of their lost memory.
Research may one day lead to new treatments for memory disorders. But the complexity of the brain processes involved makes it unlikely that a single medication will be able to resolve memory problems.
Coping and support
Living with amnesia can be frustrating for those with memory loss, and for their family and friends, too. People with more-severe forms of amnesia may require direct assistance from family, friends or professional caregivers.
It can be helpful to talk with others who understand what you're going through, and who may be able to provide advice or tips on living with amnesia. Ask your doctor if he or she knows of a support group in your area for people with amnesia and their loved ones.
If an underlying cause for the amnesia is identified, there are national organizations that can provide additional information or support for the individual and their families. Examples include:
- The Alzheimer's Association (800-272-3900)
- The Brain Injury Association of America (800-444-6443)
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, you may then be referred to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).
It's a good idea to arrive at your appointment well-prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and to know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any unusual symptoms as you experience them, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes you can recall. Ask family members or friends to help you, to ensure your list is complete.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements you're taking.
- Ask a family member or friend to come with you. Even in the best circumstances, it can be difficult to remember all of the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone with you can help you remember everything that was said.
- Bring a notepad and pen or pencil to jot down the points you want to be sure to remember later.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your doctor, as well as ensure that you cover everything you want to ask. For amnesia, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my symptoms?
- Are there other possible causes for my symptoms?
- What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
- Will my memory ever come back?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- I have other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- Do I need to restrict any activities?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home? What websites do you recommend?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did you first notice your memory loss?
- Did you experience any other symptoms at that time?
- Were you involved in any trauma? For example, a car accident, violent collision in sports or an assault?
- Did an illness or another event seem to trigger the memory loss?
- Does anything help improve your memory?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your memory loss?
- Are the memory problems intermittent or constant?
- Has the memory loss stayed the same or is it getting worse?
- Did the memory loss come on suddenly or gradually?