Memory Loss and Forgetfulness
How many times have you walked into a room and forgotten what you intended to do there? Searched in vain for keys that have mysteriously disappeared? Forgotten the name of someone you should know? These moments of forgetfulness are known as age-related memory loss (ARML). They happen to everyone – even young people. They may make you wonder whether you’re losing your edge, and that’s understandable. In fact, by age 60, more than half of adults have the same concern about their memory.
However, these minor memory lapses are usually the result of normal changes in the structure and function of your brain. Memory studies show that about one-third of healthy older people have difficulty with declarative memory (the ability to recall facts), but a substantial number of 80-year-olds perform as well as people in their 30s on difficult memory tests.
Research also shows that once something is learned, it is retained equally well by all age groups, even if it takes a bit longer for the older people to learn it. This means that as you get older, you may have to pay closer attention to new information you want to remember – or use different ways to improve your learning process and trigger memories.
Normal Memory Loss vs. Dementia
There is a difference between normal memory loss and a more serious condition like dementia. Many people experience minor memory loss and forgetfulness as they get older, and this is a normal part of aging. However, these memory lapses can sometimes be a sign of dementia.
There is one primary difference between normal ARML and dementia: ARML has little impact on your daily performance, and you’re able to live a normal and independent life. Dementia, on the other hand, is a persistent decline in your memory, language, judgment and abstract thinking.
For example, forgetting where you put your car keys is a sign of normal ARML. But forgetting what the keys are for is a sign of dementia.
Common Memory Loss and Forgetfulness Problems
Healthy people can experience memory loss and forgetfulness at any age.
Here are six memory problems that are considered normal:
- Misattribution. Misattribution occurs when you accurately remember only part of something and forget a detail like the time, place or person involved. This type of memory loss can also happen when you believe a thought you had was original when it actually come from something you previously read or heard but forgot about. This becomes more common with age because as you grow older, so do your memories.
- Suggestibility. This is similar to misattribution. Suggestibility happens when your memory of something is altered by false information from another person or source. For example, you may have correctly remembered your favorite childhood toy train being blue. But your sibling said it was red, so – over time – your memory is altered, and you now remember the train being red.
- Transience. This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. Memory has a “use it or lose it” quality. In other words, you’re least likely to forget the memories you recall and use most frequently. Transience may seem like a sign of memory weakness. However, brain scientists think it’s beneficial because it clears your brain of unused memories and makes room for newer, more useful ones.
- Absentmindedness. This type of forgetfulness happens when you don’t pay close enough attention. You forgot where you put your keys because you didn’t focus on where you set them down. Your attention was somewhere else. Absentmindedness can also mean forgetting to do something at a certain time, like taking your medication or keeping an appointment.
- Blocking. Has someone ever asked you a question, and the answer was on the tip of your tongue but you just couldn’t think of it? This is known as blocking. Blocking is the temporary inability to recall a memory. In many cases, the barrier is a memory similar to the one you’re looking for. This competing memory keeps you from remembering the information you need.
- Bias. Even your sharpest memories aren’t flawless snapshots of reality. Your personal experiences, beliefs, knowledge and mood affect your memories and perceptions when they’re being encoded in your brain. This means that when you retrieve a memory, your mood and other biases at that moment can influence what information you actually recall.
Causes of Memory Loss and Forgetfulness
You may find comfort in knowing there are many treatable causes of minor, temporary memory loss and forgetfulness. Your overall health and environment are just a few. When you take steps to assess and treat these causes, you might find that you regain your memory.
Here are several common factors that can affect your memory:
- Lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is a major factor of memory loss and forgetfulness. You should aim for at six to eight hours of quality sleep each night for your best memory function. Regular sleeping habits – like going to bed at the same time each night, and waking at the same time each morning – can also make you less forgetful.
- Stress and anxiety. Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress and anxiety. How you manage these feelings is important to your overall health and well-being. Left untreated, stress and anxiety can contribute to memory loss and forgetfulness. But if you focus on recharging your batteries when life feels overwhelming, chances are your memory will be restored.
- Depression. Not everyone who struggles with depression experiences it in the same way. However, it can affect your ability to concentrate, remember details, stay organized and make decisions. Seeking professional help for – and treating – depression can positively affect many areas of your life, including your memory.
- Thyroid problems. Your thyroid gland controls your metabolism, which can also affect your memory. If you have hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland), your body processes slow down. This can make you feel sluggish and forgetful. If you have hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), your body processes speed up. This can make you feel confused and disorganized. A simple blood test can determine if you have thyroid problems.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency. Adequate amounts of vitamin B12 can help protect your brain against memory loss and forgetfulness. Good sources of vitamin B12 include low-fat dairy products, meat and poultry, eggs and seafood. As you age, your absorption of nutrients slows down, making it difficult for your system to get the essential vitamins it needs to function properly. If you are vitamin B12 deficient, you can receive monthly injections to help you stay healthy.
- Alcohol abuse. Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with short-term memory, even after the effects of alcohol have worn off. It’s best to stick with the recommendation of no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women. One drink is generally defined as 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer.
- Medication. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications, or combinations of medications, can affect your memory by causing confusion or drowsiness. This can make it difficult to pay close attention to new information. Common medications that affect your memory and brain function include antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, sleeping pills and pain medications. If you suspect your medication is affecting your memory, you should talk to you healthcare provider.
Strategies for Preventing Memory Loss and Forgetfulness
The same strategies that contribute to greater health and well-being also help you develop a strong mind and memory. By taking steps to prevent memory loss and forgetfulness, you’ll improve other aspects of your life as well.
Here are steps you can take to prevent memory loss and forgetfulness:
- Exercise regularly. Physical fitness and mental fitness go hand-in-hand. Exercise is good for your lungs, and research shows that people who have good lung function tend to have sharper memories and brain function. Regular exercise also helps reduce your risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and stroke – illnesses that can lead to memory loss. So, take a walk around the block, use the stairs instead of the elevator, take an exercise class or learn a new sport like tennis. These can all help protect against memory loss and forgetfulness.
- Maintain a balanced diet. A balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables) and omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, canola and walnuts) is important to your overall health, as well as your brain. Try to avoid saturated and trans fats, which can clog your arteries and boost your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. You should also try to avoid eating excess calories to maintain a healthy weight. This can lower your risk for illnesses like diabetes and hypertension, which can impair your memory.
- Get plenty of sleep. As previously mentioned, sleep is important for proper brain function, and you should aim for six to eight hours of quality sleep each night. Quality is key. Some people with breathing problems can sleep for 10 hours and not feel rested. Others have difficulty falling and staying asleep because of insomnia, which becomes more common with age. Certain habits can help you achieve quality sleep each night:
- Establish and maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Exercise in the morning instead of in the evening
- Avoid coffee and other sources of caffeine
- Don’t take naps during the day
- Drink a warm glass of milk before bed
- Build a strong support network. Building and maintaining strong, healthy relationships with family members, friends, neighbors and other community members can improve your mental performance in many ways. Often, this involves activities that challenge your mind, and it can help ward off loneliness, stress and depression. It’s important to have a support network of people who will encourage and nurture you. So, reconnect with old friends, join a book club or visit your community center.
- Keep learning. Research shows that a strong relationship between your level of education and your mental function, including your memory. In other words, the more education you receive, the stronger your mind and the better your memory. Regardless of your education level, you can be a lifelong learner. Take an adult education class, read regularly, keep up with current affairs, learn a new hobby or play challenging games. These are just a few things you can do to sharpen your mind and help prevent memory loss and forgetfulness.
If you still have concerns about your memory, it might be time to seek professional help. Call the Parkview Behavioral Health HelpLine at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Our dedicated assessment specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care – or resources – for your situation.