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Memory Loss


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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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

  • Feeling depressed about your memory loss

See your doctor right away if you have memory loss and:

  • Cannot pay attention and seem very confused

  • Feel depressed and think about hurting yourself

  • Have symptoms of a nervous system problem such as headaches, trouble using or understanding language, low energy, vision problems, or dizziness

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

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