Normal age-related memory problems
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.
- Sometimes struggling to find the right words 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 loved one has mild signs of forgetfulness, but is managing to do day-to-day tasks such as shopping and cooking, and is able to plan and organise ahead, it’s very unlikely that they will be diagnosed with dementia. But if things get worse, or you or the person you’re caring for are worried, it’s best that they get checked by a GP.
Like a lot of older folk, my parents seemed to be on this tablet and that tablet, and my mother increasingly became confused.
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 a range of things.
- Stress, depression and anxiety: these conditions can commonly cause memory problems. Paying attention to information helps us to take it in at the time and to recall it later. But stress, depression, anxiety, pain or any type of distress can affect both of these processes.
- 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. A stroke can cause damage to different areas of the brain, affecting different brain functions. The damage may be temporary or permanent. Further strokes or mini-strokes can cause increasing memory loss. This is known as vascular dementia.
- 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 vascular dementia. Our articles on diagnosing dementia and living with dementia help you understand more about this condition.
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: confusion and memory problems, which develop or get worse suddenly, 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: confusion or memory loss can be side effects of taking certain medicines, such as sedatives. A GP can discuss with you whether stopping or switching medication would be a good idea.
- Hormonal changes: for example, some women experience memory problems around the time of the menopause. If these are troublesome, discuss your symptoms with your GP.
- 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.
Find out more about each of these causes of memory loss by visiting the NHS memory loss page.
Finding the cause of the memory problems
If you or the person you’re caring for have any concerns about their memory, it’s best to get them checked out by a GP. Having a timely diagnosis means you or your loved one can receive the help and support you need. This is explored further in our article, diagnosing dementia.
We explain how to spot the signs of dementia and the main types, including Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Living with dementia is life changing, so we help you understand what to expect about treatment and medications.
If you care for someone with dementia, find out how to get them the support they need, as well as support for yourself.