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Memory Loss: Definition Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Memory loss can be scary and may significantly interfere with life. Read this lesson to learn about the different types of memory loss that can occur, the causes of each, common symptoms, and possible treatment options.

What is Memory Loss?

It can be argued that our memories help make us who we are, so what happens when we lose those memories? Memory loss, in general, is the forgetting of information and experiences that a person would normally be able to recall easily. Memory loss (sometimes called amnesia) can affect short-term memory or long-term memory:

  • Short-term memories are those that recall things or information that just happened - these are recent memories.
  • Long-term memories are those that recall information or events that happened a long time ago - these are more remote memories. Long-term memories are more permanently locked in your head because you've had more time to reminisce and repeat them over time.

There are a variety of conditions that can cause either sporadic or degrading memory capabilities. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all significantly affect memory, as can head injuries or stroke. Sudden injuries result in two types of memory loss or amnesia: retrograde amnesia occurs when people forget what happened before the injury or illness, and anterograde amnesia occurs when people forget what happened after the injury or illness. If someone is experiencing memory loss, a doctor will review his or her symptoms to pinpoint the cause.

Causes of Memory Loss

Though there are many things that can contribute to memory loss, here is a list with the most commonly identified factors.

  1. Medications: There are a variety of medications known to impair memory in some way, shape, or form. The most common culprits are pharmaceuticals used for depression, anxiety, sleeping, muscle relaxants, and tranquilizers.
  2. Alcohol or drug use: Have you ever woken up after a night of too much drinking and had trouble remembering what happened (assuming you're over 21)? Alcohol consumption, in addition to drug use, is a common cause of memory loss. These substances alter the brain and affect the formation of memories during their use. Additionally, smoking can restrict blood flow to the brain that affects memory function.
  3. Lack of sleep: Your brain relies on good sleep to rejuvenate itself. If you aren't getting enough sleep, your brain can't function properly, meaning it will have trouble forming new memories and retrieving old information.
  4. Depression, anxiety, and stress: When you are feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed, you also have trouble concentrating. As a result, you notice less of what's going on around you, and this can prevent the formation of solid memories that can be recalled later.
  5. Improper nutrition: A well-rounded diet is required for the brain to function well. If you are lacking proteins, fats, or certain vitamins, you may suffer memory problems.
  6. Head injury: A concussion or blow to the head can temporarily feel like it's knocked your memories right out of you! Injuries can affect both the short- and long-term memory regions of the brain, though sometimes memories come back over time after the head has a chance to heal.
  7. Stroke: A stroke results from a sudden lack of blood flow to the brain. It's common for stroke patients to have short-term memory loss, though their long-term memories stay intact.
  8. Dementia: You may know someone who has experienced dementia, and it can be a heartbreaking condition. With dementia, a person gradually loses their memories, and the disease is irreversible. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.
  9. Other causes: These can include an irregular thyroid gland, bleeding in the brain, problems with blood flow to certain parts of the brain (different from a stroke), psychological amnesia caused by an emotionally traumatic event, or a brain tumor.

Long-term memory loss due to Alzheimer disease results in physical changes to the brain, as seen here.
Example of long-term memory loss

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