Memory loss is the inability to recall people, objects, places, or events that took place in the recent or distant past.
The brain stores different types of information in different places. Short-term memory involves recalling details that have been catalogued seconds or minutes before. Examples include reciting a phone number, recognizing a new face, or repeating a list of 3 objects seen 2 or 3 minutes earlier. For this to happen, distinct areas deep in the brain need to function properly.
Long-term memory involves the ability to recall events that took place in the distant past. For short-term memory to convert to long-term memory, other permanent changes to brain cells have to take place. This is similar to creating a permanent file or recording. Other parts of the brain perform this filing function.
Occasional memory lapses or forgetfulness are common. These may be associated with depression, stress, lack of sleep, and normal aging. Memory loss only becomes a problem when it is severe and interferes with daily living.
Amnesia is a severe form of memory loss. It may be a partial or complete lack of recall. Depending on the cause of amnesia, the memory loss may come on suddenly or slowly. It can be temporary or permanent.
Many people with progressive memory loss may not be aware of their worsening forgetfulness. Their family members or friends may be better able to judge whether their memory lapses are getting worse. Depending on whether the memory loss involves short-term or long-term memory, the individual or family may notice certain events, such as: inability to recognize family membersforgetting one's phone number or home addressforgetting how to return home from a familiar locationforgetting to eat, bathe, or maintain one's hygieneforgetting friends' or family members' names
Common medical causes of memory loss include: normal agingAlzheimer's disease, a progressive brain disorder causing deterioration in memory and thought processes depressionhead injuryseizureschronic alcohol abusebarbiturates, hallucinogens, and medications such as those used for anesthesiaelectroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, which is used to treat some mental disorderssurgery in the temporal lobe of the brain, such as a craniotomy for a brain tumorlack of oxygen to the brain, from an event such as a near drowningstrokeHuntington's diseaseatherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteriesmultiple sclerosis, a degenerative disorder caused by destruction of the lining of nerves throughout the body HIV, the immunodeficiency disorder associated with AIDS Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of part of the nervous system Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rapidly progressing degenerative disorder of the nervous system causing problems with walking, talking, and the senses Pick's disease, a disorder of the brain that causes slowly progressing dementiaviral or bacterial encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain Lewy body disease, a degenerative disease of the nervous systemnormal pressure hydrocephalus, or increased cerebrospinal fluid in the brain chronic subdural hematoma, or bleeding between the brain lining and brain tissuebrain tumor Wilson disease, a rare disease causing an accumulation of copper in the liver, brain, kidneys, and corneas neurosyphilis, an infection of the nervous system by the syphilis bacteria which causes weakness and mental deterioration
Certain abnormalities of a person's metabolism or hormones may also be responsible for memory loss. These include: hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid glandhyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid gland high-dose steroid abuseVitamin B12deficiencythiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiencyNiacin (vitamin B3) deficiencychronic alcohol abusechronic exposure to metals, such as lead or mercury, and to dyes, such as anilinemedication side effects or drug interactions
Mild memory loss comes normally with aging. Keeping the brain active may help to preserve brain cells. Reading, singing, doing puzzles, conversing, exercising, and eating a balanced diet stimulate blood flow and activity in the brain.
Many cases of memory loss are due to Alzheimer's disease. Although there are no proven methods to prevent Alzheimer's disease, recent research findings provide some options that may slow the onset of the disease or the progression of symptoms. These findings, which need further study, include: low doses of aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which may work by making blood cells and vessels less sticky and improving blood flowactively engaging in cognitive activities such as reading, which may increase the nerve connections in the brain and delay the onset of the diseasetaking antioxidants such as vitamins Cand E avoiding head injuries. A person should wear a seat belt at all times when riding in a motor vehicle. Sports safety guidelines for children, adolescents, and adults can be helpful in avoiding other head injuries.
Strokes are another major cause of memory loss. Preventing or treating high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and alcohol abuse can lower the risk of stroke.
A person does not need to see a healthcare professional about simple memory loss that happens only once in a while. If memory loss is severe and progressive, Alzheimer's disease must be considered. Dementia can be diagnosed only if a healthcare provider is made aware of the problem.
The family should be able to discuss the range of the person's symptoms over time. Included should be how symptoms progressed and whether the symptoms improved or deteriorated. Also, the family should report how suddenly or gradually symptoms came on. The healthcare provider should also know all medications that the individual is taking. This includes over-the-counter products, herbal remedies, and all prescription medications.
Combinations of drugs may impair memory at times. The healthcare provider will look for other medical conditions that may contribute to the symptoms.
To determine if other medical conditions are contributing to the symptoms, tests may be done. Tests may include: blood tests, such as a complete blood count, or CBC, thyroid function tests, tests for infectious diseases and vitamin levels in the bloodmemory testingelectroencephalogram, or EEG, which measures brain waveselectrocardiogram, or ECG, which measures the electrical activity of the heartcranial MRI or cranial CT scans, which look at the structures of the brainspinal tap, a procedure in which a small amount of fluid is withdrawn from the spinal column to look for infection or bleeding
Occasional memory lapses do not usually disrupt daily life. However, individuals with long-term, progressive dementia will continue to lose mental abilities. Ultimately, this makes independent living impossible. A person suffering from the condition often requires nursing home care. The family may face considerable financial expense in caring for the person. Falls, trauma, infections, and depression may also occur, resulting in further expense.
Memory loss is not contagious and poses no risk to others. If the memory loss is caused by an infection such as AIDS, the infection may be contagious.
There are several steps a person can take to improve his or her memory. These include: following a regular routine when possiblesetting up a reminder system. This may include a book, calendar, or pocket diary.making daily listskeeping track of daily medications. This can be done with a medication reminder box or a chart posted on the refrigerator.keeping track of appointments, birthdays, and bills to paykeeping a list of names and telephone numberskeeping keys in the same place
The 5 medications currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of Alzheimer's disease are donepezil (i.e. Aricept), tacrine (i.e. Cognex), galantamine (i.e. Razadyne), rivastigmine (i.e. Exelon), and memantine (i.e. Namenda).
The first four medications are designed to improve memory by increasing the amount of acetylcholine in the body. Memantine is a newer medication which works by reducing overexposure of the brain to a chemical called glutamate which harms brain cells.
Other medications, such as risperidone (i.e., Risperdal) or quetiapine (i.e., Seroquel), may also be used to help behavioral problems such as hallucinations, delusions, or agitation. Some individuals with memory loss may also need medications for depression, anxiety, or insomnia.
Other treatments include support and education for those caring for people with memory loss. Individual and family counseling can be beneficial. It's also been found that support groups assist caregivers. As the memory loss progresses, many families are unable to care for the person at home, and placement in a special facility becomes necessary.
Medications used to treat memory loss can damage the liver, so periodic liver function tests are needed. Other side effects may include nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, vomiting, fatigue, or muscle cramps.
In most cases, memory loss is a degenerative condition without a cure. Treatment is lifelong. Because the course of memory loss is unpredictable, individuals with the condition should make plans for end-of-life care while they are still able to participate in the decision-making process.
Difficult issues that family members may face include: promoting independence while making sure the individual is saferemoving driving privilegesfinding supportive care among family or in an assisted living facility or nursing homemaking business decisionsdetermining executors of written wills and making sure advanced directives are in the individual's patient file at his or her doctor's office
Individuals with memory loss will have periodic visits to the healthcare provider for evaluation and treatment. Periodic liver function tests may be ordered if the person is taking one of the medications that can cause liver damage. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider.