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Memory loss

Memory loss (amnesia) is unusual forgetfulness. You may not be able to remember new events, recall one or more memories of the past, or both.

Alternative Names

Forgetfulness; Amnesia; Impaired memory; Loss of memory; Amnestic syndrome

Considerations

Normal aging may cause some forgetfullness. It's normal to have some trouble learning new material, or needing more time to remember it.

However, normal aging does NOT lead to dramatic memory loss. Such memory loss is due to other diseases. Sometimes, memory loss may be seen with depression. It can be hard to tell the difference between memory loss and confusion due to depression.

Some types of memory loss may cause you to forget recent or new events, past or remote events, or both. You may forget memories from a single event, or all events. 

Memory loss may cause you to have trouble learning new information or forming new memories.

The memory loss may be temporary (transient), or permanent.

Common Causes

Memory loss can be caused by many different things. To determine a cause, your doctor or nurse will ask if the problem came on suddenly or slowly.

Many areas of the brain help you create and retrieve memories. A problem in any of these areas can lead to memory loss.

Causes of memory loss include:

  • Alcohol or use of illicit drugs
  • Not enough oxygen to the brain (heart stopped, stopped breathing, complications from anesthesia)
  • Brain growths (caused by tumors or infection)
  • Brain infections such as Lyme disease , syphilis, or HIV/AIDS
  • Brain surgery , such as surgery to treat seizure disorders
  • Cancer treatments, such as brain radiation, bone marrow transplant, or after chemotherapy
  • Certain medications
  • Certain types of seizures
  • Depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia when symptoms have not been well controlled
  • Dissociative disorder (not being able to remember a major, traumatic event; the memory loss may be short-term or long-term)
  • Drugs such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (especially if it is long-term)
  • Encephalitis of any type (infection, autoimmune disease, chemical/drug induced)
  • Epilepsy that is not well controlled with medications
  • Head trauma or injury
  • Illness that results in the loss of, or damage to, nerve cells (neurodegenerative illness), such as Parkinson's disease , Huntington's disease , or multiple sclerosis
  • Migraine headache
  • Mild head injury or concussion
  • Nutritional problems (vitamin deficiencies such as low vitamin B12 )
  • Permanent damage or injuries to the brain
  • Transient global amnesia

Home Care

A person with memory loss needs a lot of support. It helps to show them familiar objects, music, or photos.

Write down when the person should take any medication or complete any other important tasks. It is important to write it down.

If a person needs help with everyday tasks, or safety or nutrition is a concern, you may want to consider extended care facilities, such as a nursing home.

What to expect at your health care provider's office

The doctor or nurse will perform a physical exam and ask questions about the person's medical history and symptoms. This will almost always include asking questions of family members and friends. They should come to the appointment.

Medical history questions may include:

  • Type
    • Can the person remember recent events (is there impaired short-term memory)?
    • Can the person remember events from further in the past (is there impaired long-term memory)?
    • Is there a loss of memory about events that occurred before a specific experience (anterograde amnesia)?
    • Is there a loss of memory about events that occurred soon after a specific experience (retrograde amnesia)?
    • Is there only a minimal loss of memory?
    • Does the person make up stories to cover gaps in memory (confabulation)?
    • Is the person suffering from low moods that impair concentration?
  • Time pattern
    • Has the memory loss been getting worse over years?
    • Has the memory loss been developing over weeks or months?
    • Is the memory loss present all the time or are there distinct episodes of amnesia?
    • If there are amnesia episodes, how long do they last?
  • Aggravating or triggering factors
    • Has there been a head injury in the recent past?
    • Has the person experienced an event that was emotionally traumatic?
    • Has there been a surgery or procedure requiring general anesthesia?
    • Does the person use alcohol? How much?
    • Does the person use illegal/illicit drugs? How much? What type?
  • Other symptoms
    • What other symptoms does the person have?
    • Is the person confused or disoriented?
    • Can they independently eat, dress, and perform similar self-care activities?
    • Have they had seizures?

Tests that may be done include:

TREATMENT

Cognitive therapy, usually through a speech/language therapist, may be helpful for mild to moderate memory loss.

See: Dementia - homecare for information about taking care of a loved one with dementia.

References

Kirshner HS. Approaches to intellectual and memory impairments. In: Gradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth-Heinemann; 2008:chap 6.

Updated: 2/16/2012

Luc Jasmin, MD, PhD, Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, and Department of Anatomy at UCSF, San Francisco, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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