Understanding and Improving Memory Loss

If you are frequently forgetting names and dates or misplacing your car keys, you are not alone. Memory loss is common and has many causes, including the normal aging process. Whether memory lapses are due to advancing years, or they herald a serious underlying condition, improvement is often possible.

Normal Age-Related Memory Loss

Forgetting the name of your favorite television show or why you walked into a room may be alarming if it happens frequently, but if you are in your 50s, some degree of age-related memory loss is completely normal. In fact, mild memory loss affects one out of four people who are age 65 or older. Medical science has not pinpointed the exact cause of age-related memory loss. Theories include decreased blood flow to the brain and loss of brain cells. While it is frustrating, simple age-related memory loss does not lead to any serious decline in mental function and often responds to conservative treatment.

Other Causes of Mild Memory Loss

While advancing age is the most common explanation, mild forgetfulness may be due to other factors. In younger or middle aged people, stress can play a significant role. When your mind and emotions are overloaded due to stressful events and situations, it's easy to lose track of objects or forget dates. This type of memory loss is temporary and usually no cause for concern. Always seek medical attention if your memory problems start suddenly or accompany other symptoms. All of the following can cause or worsen memory loss.

  • Prescription medications
  • Alcohol, drug or tobacco use
  • Poor quality sleep
  • Depression, anxiety or stress
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Hormonal disturbances

When Does Memory Loss Indicate Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease?

Most people who worry about their memory loss fear that it is due to dementia or Alzheimer's disease. The two terms are related, and they are often confused or used interchangeably. Dementia is an impairment of memory and reasoning skills that dramatically affects a person's ability to carry out normal activities. It may be caused by a variety of physical conditions including brain tumors, Huntington's disease, HIV, bacterial infections and strokes or other vascular problems. Alzheimer's disease is a specific form of dementia that involves microscopic brain abnormalities and characteristic symptom patterns. It is the most common cause of dementia, especially in the elderly. Below is a list of frequently encountered symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

  • Problems with both short-term and long-term memory
  • Repeatedly asking the same questions or telling the same stories
  • Forgetting how to perform everyday tasks like cooking, dressing, making phone calls or playing games
  • Wandering off randomly or getting lost in familiar places
  • Misplacing objects in unusual ways such as placing canned food in the freezer
  • Forgetting to pay bills or mismanagement of funds
  • Inability to answer simple questions or make routine decisions
  • Using words or ideas improperly in conversation
  • Neglecting personal hygiene or forgetting to bathe
  • Unusual or inappropriate emotional responses
  • Problems with coordination

Treating Memory Loss Naturally

A natural treatment approach is often effective for mild memory loss, and it can even be fun. A variety of sophisticated brain-boosting and memory training games are available online, but even simple crossword puzzles, card games or trivia games are effective. Any activity that increases mental stimulation sharpens the mind, so keep your social life active and take time to do the things that interest you. A healthy diet that includes the proper balance of nutrients is essential for brain function. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and promotes the regeneration of brain cells. If your doctor approves, adopt a moderate aerobic workout or walking routine. While their usefulness is sometimes debated, natural supplements that claim to improve memory include ginkgo biloba, vitamin E, Asian ginseng, acetyl-L-carnitine and omega-3 fatty acids.

When to Consult Your Doctor About Memory Loss

Consult your doctor under any of the following conditions.

  • Your memory loss appears suddenly or worsens rapidly
  • Your forgetfulness is affecting your ability to function normally
  • You have other symptoms such as headache, slurred speech or muscle weakness
  • Family or friends have expressed concern about your memory problems or behavior

Remember This

No matter what is causing memory loss, there is usually a way to reverse it, treat it or at least slow its progression. With lifestyle changes, cognitive therapies or medical intervention, the power to remember can often be improved for those who seek help.