Memory problems can be caused by various factors. They may be a natural part of ageing, a side effect of taking a medication, or an indication of something more serious, such as a dementia-related condition.
On this page we explain about the following different types of memory loss:
1. Normal age-related memory problems
2. Common causes of memory loss
3. Less common causes of memory loss
Normal age-related memory problems
'Like a lot of older folk, my parents seemed to be on this tablet and that tablet and my mother increasingly became confused.' Graham's story
Our brains store huge amounts of information throughout our lifetimes. As people grow older, it's normal for their ability to ‘manage’ that information to decline. Forgetting small things and then remembering them later, or being slower to learn new things, might be annoying but could simply be a normal part of ageing. There are several common memory problems associated with ageing.
- Occasionally forgetting appointments, or forgetting names and then remembering them later.
- Making the odd mistake when managing household bills, or forgetting to pay a bill on time.
- Being slow or finding it difficult to grapple with new technology, such as mobile phones or computers.
- Getting the date wrong, but usually recalling it later.
- Sometimes struggling to find the right word when speaking.
- Misplacing things from time to time, but often finding them eventually.
- Finding it difficult to manage work, family and social obligations.
- Developing strict routines and finding it difficult when they are disrupted.
If your elderly relative has mild signs of forgetfulness, but is managing to do day-to-day tasks like shopping and cooking, and is able to plan and organise ahead, it’s very unlikely that they’ll be diagnosed with dementia. But if things get worse, or you or your relative are worried, it's best that they get checked by a GP.
Common causes of memory loss
Memory loss can result from a variety of causes. Depending on the cause, the memory loss may be temporary or permanent; it may happen suddenly or get progressively worse over time. It can affect short-term memory (things that happened recently), long-term memory (things that happened a long time ago), or both. Memory loss might be caused by any of the following things:
- Stress, depression and anxiety: these conditions can commonly cause memory problems. Memory loss might be made worse by poor concentration, or a person's lack of interest in what is going on around them.
- Fatigue: sleep is important for people mentally as well as physically. Without sleep the brain is slower and more sluggish, and memory may be temporarily impaired.
- Stroke: a stroke, or series of strokes, may affect brain function and can result in memory loss.
- Head injury: memory loss can be caused as a result of a head injury, for example during a fall or a car accident, which has damaged the brain. A head injury might result in sudden memory loss, so people may not be able to remember things immediately before or after the incident took place. Brain trauma may cause temporary memory loss, and sometimes may require surgery.
- Dementia: memory loss and decline of mental ability are symptoms of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson's. Dementia is one of the most common reasons for memory loss in older people. For more details about dementia, see What is dementia?, Diagnosing dementia and Living with dementia.
Less common causes of memory loss
- Brain tumour: a tumour in certain parts of the brain can affect memory function. This may require surgery.
- Infections: new confusion and memory problems may be caused by an infection, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI). These can be treated with medication.
- Drugs or alcohol: long-term abuse of illegal drugs or excessive alcohol consumption can affect memory.
- Medications: side effects of taking certain medicines, such as sedatives, may be confusion or memory loss. A GP can discuss with you whether stopping or switching medication would be a good idea.
- Hormonal changes: for example, some women complain of memory problems in relation to the menopause.
- Underactive thyroid: when the thyroid gland (in the neck) doesn’t produce enough hormones. This can usually be treated with medication.
- Vitamin deficiency: for example, a lack of thiamine (vitamin B1) because of excessive alcohol consumption, or vitamin B12 deficiency due to autoimmune factors. This can be treated with supplements.
Finding the cause of the problems
If you or your relative have any concerns about memory, they can get checked out by a GP. Having a timely diagnosis means the quicker you or your relative can receive the help and support they need. For more information about getting a diagnosis, see Getting a dementia diagnosis.
Find out more about each of these causes of memory loss by visiting the NHS Memory Loss page.
- Care services directory: use our directory to find care homes that specialise in dementia or dementia support groups in your area.
- What is dementia?: learn more about dementia and its early symptoms.
- Graham’s story: Graham was concerned about his mother's changing behaviour and realised that she was suffering from dementia.
Page last reviewed: May 2016
Next review due: August 2018