Memory Loss

What did I do with the keys?

Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. Just as our bodies change, so do our brains. We can’t find the keys, we forget to mail the birthday card or buy the milk.  These lapses, although disturbing, are usually signs of mild forgetfulness and not serious memory problems.

Emotions & Memory

Emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety, or depression, can make anyone more forgetful.  Episodes of forgetfulness in themselves create more stress and anxiety.  Coping with the loss of a long-time companion or serious health problems can be  overwhelming and trying to deal with these life changes leaves some people confused or forgetful.

The confusion and forgetfulness caused by emotions usually are temporary and go away with time.  But when the underlying emotional problems and the resulting episodes of forgetfulness do not seem to diminish, it is best to discuss this with your doctor.   Your mental health is as important to your doctor as your physical health.

More Serious Memory Problems

Sometimes memory problems could be a result of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.  Anyone who are worried about memory problems should see a doctor.  The doctor might conduct or order a thorough physical and mental health evaluation to reach a diagnosis. Often, these evaluations are conducted by a neurologist, a physician who specializes in problems related to the brain and central nervous system.

A complete medical exam for memory loss should review the person’s medical history, including the use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, diet, past medical problems, and general health. A correct diagnosis depends on accurate details, so in addition to talking with the patient, the doctor might ask a family member, caregiver, or close friend for information.

Blood and urine tests can help the doctor find the cause of the memory problems or dementia. The doctor also might do tests for memory loss and test the person’s problem-solving and language abilities. A computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan may help rule out some causes of the memory problems.

Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Some people with memory problems have a condition called amnestic mild cognitive impairment, or amnestic MCI. People with this condition have more memory problems than normal for people their age, but their symptoms are not as severe as those of Alzheimer’s disease, and they are able to carry out their normal daily activities.

Signs of MCI include misplacing things often, forgetting to go to important events and appointments, and having trouble coming up with desired words. Family and friends may notice memory lapses, and the person with MCI may worry about losing his or her memory. These worries may prompt the person to see a doctor for diagnosis.

Researchers have found that more people with MCI than those without it go on to develop Alzheimer’s within a certain timeframe. However, not everyone who has MCI develops AD. Studies are underway to learn why some people with MCI progress to AD and others do not.

There currently is no standard treatment for MCI. Typically, the doctor will regularly monitor and test a person diagnosed with MCI to detect any changes in memory and thinking skills over time. There are no medications approved for use for MCI.

Dementia. Dementia is the loss of thinking, memory, and reasoning skills to such an extent that it seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. Dementia is not a disease itself but a group of symptoms caused by certain diseases or conditions such as Alzheimer’s. People with dementia lose their mental abilities at different rates.   Symptoms may include:

  • Being unable to remember things
  • Asking the same question or repeating the same story over and over
  • Becoming lost in familiar places
  • Being unable to follow directions
  • Getting disoriented about time, people, and places
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition

Two of the most common forms of dementia in older people are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. These types of dementia cannot be cured at present.

In Alzheimer’s disease, changes to nerve cells in certain parts of the brain result in the death of a large number of cells. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin slowly and worsen steadily as damage to nerve cells spreads throughout the brain. As time goes by, forgetfulness gives way to serious problems with thinking, judgment, recognizing family and friends, and the ability to perform daily activities like driving a car or handling money. Eventually, the person needs total care.

In vascular dementia, a series of strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply leads to the death of brain tissue. Symptoms of vascular dementia can vary but usually begin suddenly, depending on where in the brain the strokes occurred and how severe they were. The person’s memory, language, reasoning, and coordination may be affected. Mood and personality changes are common as well.

It’s not possible to reverse damage already caused by a stroke, so it’s very important to get medical care right away if someone has signs of a stroke. It’s also important to take steps to prevent further strokes, which worsen vascular dementia symptoms. Some people have both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.


Some helpful resources:

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center

P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
1-800-438-4380 (toll-free)

The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and publications in English and Spanish for families, caregivers, and professionals on diagnosis, treatment, patient care, caregiver needs, long-term care, education and training, and research related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s Association
225 North Michigan Avenue, Floor 17
Chicago, IL 60601-7633
1-800-272-3900 (toll-free)
1-866-403-3073 (TDD/toll-free)

Eldercare Locator
1-800-677-1116 (toll-free)

National Library of Medicine

For more information on health and aging, contact:

National Institute on Aging
Information Center

P.O. Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
1-800-222-2225 (toll-free)
1-800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)


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