A certain amount of loss in memory and brain function (thinking, reasoning, perception, and learning) is a perfectly normal part of aging. However, there are some signs of memory loss that are not normal and may indicate a more serious issue.
If you experience any abnormal memory loss, or have any concerning symptoms, please seek medical advice immediately.
- Normal memory problems
- Abnormal memory loss
- How memory loss is diagnosed
Normal memory problems due to ageing
A part of the normal ageing process is a decrease in memory and thinking skills.
Signs of normal ageing include:
- Minor forgetfulness (e.g., forgetting where you placed your car keys, failing to remember dates, difficulty recalling certain words in the moment, etc.)
- Processing information slower
- Having a slower reaction time during your thought process
The important thing to keep in mind is that memory loss related to ageing does not interfere with living a normal life. Any memory issues that negatively impact with daily life may indicate abnormal memory loss.
Abnormal memory loss
When memory loss disrupts daily life, it is considered to be abnormal. There are different types of abnormal memory loss, ranging from temporary to permanent.
Temporary memory problems
Temporary memory loss results from a physical, mental, or emotional state, and after the state is over, memory and brain function goes back to normal.
The most common sources of temporary memory loss include:
- Brain tumour
- Lack of sleep
- Mental illness
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency
Sleep and memory have a complicated relationship. Getting rest is crucial for your brain’s ability to learn and process information. During sleep, your brain is processing the day and forming memories.
When someone doesn’t get enough sleep, they will experience sleep deprivation — one common symptom being difficulty remembering things. Without enough sleep, your brain doesn’t have enough time to process and store memories affecting how they are consolidated (ability to stick) and later on making it difficult to recall information.
Mild cognitive impairment
This condition is characterised by a mild decrease in the ability of your normal brain function. The symptoms are easily recognisable by those around you, however, you can still live daily life normally.
Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include:
- Forgetting you asked a question
- Telling the same pieces of information repeatedly without realising
- Difficulty or the inability to follow directions (e.g., recipes or assembling an item with instructions)
- Losing focus
- Changes in your ability to recall words
- Difficulty or inability to complete multi-step tasks
- Difficulty working through problems
Mild cognitive impairment can, but does not always, progress to dementia.
Dementia is not a condition in itself but rather a general term used to cover diseases that cause progressive cognitive impairment (meaning that brain function gets worse over time) including memory loss.
Examples of diseases that fall under this category include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Mixed dementia
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Lewy body dementia
These diseases typically begin with mild symptoms, the same as ‘mild cognitive impairment’. However, over time those with dementia continue to decrease in their brain function to the point that they are no longer able to care for themselves.
- Severe memory loss
- Forgetting who family members and friends are
- Confusion as to where you are, what you are doing, time of day, day of the week, etc.
- Inability to drive
- Poor judgement and reasoning
[Image description: Pink background with a white jigsaw puzzle of a human head and the centre puzzle piece missing where the brain is located.]
It is common for people who have epilepsy to have memory loss. Memory can be affected during and after an event. One of the most common symptoms of a seizure is having blackouts or periods of time that cannot be remembered. The more frequently you experience seizures, the more often you may experience memory problems.
Symptoms of memory associated symptoms of epilepsy include:
- Decreased attention span
- Difficult retaining memories
- Difficulty in recalling information
Cause of memory loss in people with epilepsy
Understanding epilepsy is key to knowing why you may have memory loss. The right temporal lobe and frontal lobe are involved in visual memories and future memories, respectively. Seizures that begin in this area of the brain are the most common cause of memory loss. You may have difficulty remembering words, people, places, and future plans during an event.
People with epilepsy may also have memory problems immediately after having a seizure. This is referred to as ‘post-ictal confusion’. The amount of time it takes to recover your memory and full brain function varies with each person. Anti-epileptic drugs can also result in memory loss and difficulty learning new information.
Memory can also be disturbed by ‘subclinical seizures’ (seizures that you are not aware of), and during the build up to seizures, such as during ‘auras’. An aura is a sudden and unusual feeling experienced in the early phase of a seizure, which may include memory-related symptoms like déjà vu, jamais vu (when a familiar situation or place suddenly feels strange), nostalgia, or similar sensations. Auras may occur without evolving into recognisable seizures. Similarly, even very short epileptic events (less than a second) without obvious symptoms can cause temporary memory loss or cognitive impairment.
How memory loss is diagnosed
Seek medical advice immediately if you think you or a loved one may be experiencing abnormal memory issues.
Before running any tests, your healthcare professional will first:
- Conduct a physical exam
- Obtain a full medical history, including family medical history
- Ask about symptoms you are experiencing and current medications you are taking
Tests to diagnose memory loss
Your doctor may run a series of tests during your physical exam to rule out any underlying medical issues.
These may include:
- Blood tests
- Brain imaging (computed tomography scan (CT))
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
The ‘Mini-Mental State Examination’ is the most common cognitive test that provides critical information about your memory and attention span. During the test, you may be asked to follow a set of instructions, play a memory game, copy an illustration you have been given, and even remember facts. How you handle these tasks will tell your doctor a great deal about how well your brain is functioning.
What to do next?
The idea that you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss is understandably scary. However, seeking help is the best way to manage memory problems. If you think you may be experiencing abnormal memory loss, consult your doctor to get a diagnosis and the help you need.
If you believe your memory loss results from experiencing seizures, download this questionnaire to help you prepare for your doctor’s appointment.