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Quick Facts

Memory Loss

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

What is memory loss?

Memory loss is the inability to remember things as well as you used to.

Mild memory loss can be a normal part of aging. For example, you may forget where you put your car keys. Memory loss that is more serious may be a warning sign of a brain function problem, such as Alzheimer disease or dementia.

  • Your family members may notice your memory loss before you do

  • Signs of more serious memory loss include forgetting about things that just happened or having problems doing activities you've done many times before

  • Using lists, calendars, and memory aids can help you cope with memory loss

When should I see a doctor for memory loss?

See your doctor if you have memory loss and any of these warning signs:

  • Trouble doing daily activities such as managing your money or medicines

  • Trouble paying attention or concentrating

  • Trouble finding the right words

  • Feeling confused

  • Feeling depressed about your memory loss

  • Other symptoms that may be signs of a nervous system problem such as headaches, trouble using or understanding language, low energy, vision problems, or dizziness

See your doctor right away if you have other symptoms that may be signs of a serious brain problem. Such symptoms include:

  • Severe headache

  • Trouble speaking or understanding language

  • Trouble moving parts of your body

  • Vision problems

What causes memory loss?

The most common cause of memory loss is:

  • Getting older—minor changes in memory can be normal as you age

Other common causes:

  • Mild thinking problems (mild cognitive impairment)—about half of the people who have this will get dementia a few years later

  • Depression—if you have depression, you probably also have other symptoms, such as intense sadness and problems sleeping

  • Some medicines

  • Overusing drugs or alcohol

What will happen at my doctor visit?

Doctors will do a physical exam and ask questions about your memory loss, such as:

  • What types of things you forget

  • When your memory problems started

  • Whether your memory seems to be getting worse

  • If it's getting harder to do your job or daily activities

  • If memory loss runs in your family

Doctors may want you to bring a family member or friend to your appointment who can describe symptoms you may not have noticed or may have trouble remembering.

Doctors may do tests such as:

  • Mental status testing—doctors will ask questions and have you do specific tasks to test your thinking skills, such as attention, memory, and language

  • MRI or CT scan if doctors suspect dementia or other problems such as a tumor or stroke

  • Blood tests

  • Spinal tap (using a needle to get a sample of spinal fluid from your lower back) if doctors suspect a brain or spinal infection

How do doctors treat memory loss?

Doctors will:

  • Treat any health problem causing your memory loss

  • Sometimes give you medicine, if you have dementia

  • Test you to see whether you should stop certain activities, such as driving

  • Offer tips, such as using lists and reminders

What can I do to help cope with memory loss?

Live a healthy life:

  • Eat healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Be active each day

  • See your doctor for regular check-ups

  • Take part in learning, social, and physical activities

  • Get 6 to 8 hours of sleep each night

  • Stop smoking and drinking alcohol

  • Avoid stress

Use strategies to cope with memory loss:

  • Make lists

  • Keep a detailed calendar

  • Stick with a routine, such as going to bed at the same time every night and getting ready the same way every morning

  • Repeat new information several times

  • Focus on just one thing at a time

  • Stay organized, such as always putting your car keys in the same place

  • Join social activities to stay involved with others and stay mentally active