Some forgetfulness is natural. With age, such lapses in memory increase in frequency and intensity.
Memory is broadly of 3 types: sensory, short–term, and long–term.
Normal reasons for forgetting are: Fatigue, stress, lack of sleep, lack of interest, alcohol consumption and smoking, depression, anxiety, emotional trauma, head injury, nutritional deficiency, thyroid problems, medications, and medical problems.
Certain signs of memory loss need medical attention. For example, short–term memory loss, difficulty in finding the right words, directions, and spatial orientation, difficulty in doing routine tasks, difficulty in following storylines, poor judgement, change in mood, and withdrawal from social life.
The full article below discusses when a sign of memory loss is innocuous, and when it is a hint of a problem.
Forgetting a single event does not indicate you have dementia. However, if you notice multiple early signs of dementia, do seek medical help.
There are certain medications, nutrients, supplements, and herbs that help with memory loss.
Dementia has no cure so far, but with early diagnosis and a multi-dimensional treatment approach, its progression can be slowed down.
We forget things all through our lives, even at a young age. However, as we age, the frequency and intensity of forgetting increases.
Some of this is natural. So, when should one be worried about it? When can it be an early sign of a more serious problem, such as dementia?
There is a process to how we form and retrieve our memories. Let us understand that mechanism. That way, we can make better judgements about abnormal happenings.
First, we form a sensory memory.
We sense the world through our five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. When we hear, see, or read anything, we form a very short–term retention of it in our sensory organs. You might remember the words you heard, for example.
But this will last only for a short period, until the sensory organ gets new inputs. As the person hears more stuff, his sensory organ — the ear — will generate newer data, which will overwrite the earlier stuff.
That is also why you can retain things a bit better when you hear or read something in the middle of the night. Since there is almost no external input coming in in the middle of the night, the sensory inputs don’t get overwritten so fast, giving you time to retain them longer.
The sensory inputs are then filed into our brain as short–term memories.
These can last from a few seconds to a few hours. For example, you may remember a phone number for a bit longer than a few seconds. And you may remember that you have to buy some milk for a few hours.
Also, your short–term memory can store only a little. That is why you will forget a long string of digits that you hear. Usually, you will remember up to 7 digits. If you hear more digits, you might lose the earlier ones.
This will happen unless you figure out a process to rapidly file those numbers somewhere else in the memory, and clear your short–term memory.
But you won’t remember those numbers for years. That is the task of your long–term memory.
Through a process that is not yet fully understood, our brains turn some short–term memories into long–term memories.
For example, you will remember the time when you won that big award, the first time you saw your baby, the time you crossed the finish line of your first running race, or even that out–of–control moment when you crashed your car into the road divider.
Your brain transfers short–term, or temporary, memories of these events, into a long–term, or permanent memory. If you want to, that is.
Research is pointing out to how such consolidation happens. Read these two interesting articles:
In Psychology Today, read: Mental downtime affects learning.
In Scientific American, read: Why your brain needs more downtime.
Long–term memory formation
The process of transferring short–term memory into long–term one is supposed to be through a narrow funnel. All short–term memories have to pass through that narrow channel before they are stored into the vast reservoir called your long–term memory.
It is akin to connecting a big river to a vast sea through a narrow pipeline. If that pipe is somehow blocked, or narrowed, the water reaching the sea reduces. Similarly, whatever is converting your short–term memory into long–term memory will not be efficient if that small funnel, or pipe, in your mind, is somehow blocked, or disturbed.
In normal people, this transfer supposedly happens during downtime — the time when you are apparently doing nothing, whiling away your time.
It seems that when children are doing ‘nothing’, their brains are actually converting short–term memories into long–term memories. And we accuse them with ‘why are you wasting your time, doing nothing?”
In fact, if you take away the downtime, it will be harder to retain memories for longer term. So, perhaps, if you are burdening your children with incessant studies, they may not be able to remember their study matter for long.
This is the mechanism of memory formation. If you disturb that process flow, you will forget things.
It is one thing to able to store a long–term memory, it is quite another to be able to retrieve it on command.
Sometimes, you will remember something well, but your retrieval encoding may not be good. For example, you may associate and remember a person’s face with the name ‘Raj’, but you may not be able to recollect his name without seeing his face.
There are many tricks and techniques that tell you how to have better long–term memory. After all, people who recite the value of Pi to the ten thousandth digit, don’t remember it digit by digit. They usually have some mnemonics to help them retrieve such long numbers.
So, sometimes, your forgetfulness could be because of a faulty retrieval system and not a faulty storage one.
Normal causes for forgetting something
Before we know the signs of abnormal memory loss, we should understand what could be the normal reasons.
Fatigue and stress
If you are fatigued or stressed, it is difficult to form memories as well as retrieve them.
Lack of sleep
Children often study for long hours, especially the night before the examination. While that may help them answer the examination questions from short–term memory, they may not form long–term memories of the matter they studied.
That is why children are advised to study consistently throughout the year, and not just towards the end. Now I know why I always did well in the examinations but I don’t remember any of that stuff years later.:-)
If one has sleep apnea, one ends up waking up multiple times in the night, getting disturbed sleep. This will lead to poor memory formation and retrieval.
If you are not interested in the subject, you will not try to remember and form long–term memories.
Influence of substances
If one is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, one will not remember or recollect well.
Alcohol affects a part of the brain called the Hippocampus, where memories are stored. Even after you are no more inebriated, the brain may not remember events from that period.
Science still does not know if the problem of alcohol consumption can cause permanent damage to memories. However, it knows that adults, and particularly adolescents, suffer from memory formation when under the influence of alcohol.
Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen your brain gets. Studies have found that smokers find it more difficult to put names to the faces than non–smokers. “I forgot his name”, is their refrain.
Depression makes it difficult to pay attention and focus. This can affect the formation and retrieval of memories.
Anxiety and emotional trauma
Anxiety distracts your mind. An overstimulated, anxious mind will find it difficult to form new memories.
Deficiencies in vitamins B–1 and B–12 affect memory.
A deficiency of an omega–3 fatty acid called DHA affects brain function.
Getting adequate protein and good-quality fats is also essential for keeping your brain healthy.
If you get a serious head injury, you may forget a few things from your past. Those dramatic film storylines were not just out of artistic, creative license, after all. Such memory loss may improve over a period of time, though, if the injury is not too severe.
Underactive or overactive thyroid
If you are suffering from hypo– or hyperthyroidism, you may have trouble sleeping as well as get depression. All of these lead to memory problems.
Side effects of some drugs are loss of short–term and long–term memories. Watch out for:
- Anti-anxiety medicines
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Parkinson’s medicines
- Medicines for urinary incontinence
- Beta-blockers (for lowering blood pressure)
- Hypnotics (sleeping pills)
- Some types of antihistamines
- Muscle relaxants
Read here: Drugs that may cause memory loss.
Medical conditions affecting the brain
Illnesses such as tuberculosis, syphilis, and HIV also affect the brain. Memory loss can ensue.
Signs of memory loss that need attention
We will discuss various warning signs of dementia. We will also try to differentiate them from simple age–related memory problems. In other words, for each sign, we will see how a regular ageing person would act, versus a potential dementia patient would.
Short–term memory loss
If you forget an appointment or a person’s name, that is a part of normal ageing. You may remember those details later.
However, if you forget what you ate for lunch, important appointments, and recently learned events, seek help. If you start asking for the same information, again and again, it is not a good sign.
Dementia patients, often, remember past events very well, but they forget recent events. They may remember their college days clearly but fail to remember what dress they wore the previous evening.
Difficulty finding the right words
If you struggle to find the right word for a concept, it is normal ageing. You may call a ‘peninsula’ an ‘island’, or call a ‘watch’ a ‘clock’.
This is assuming you knew the right word in the earlier days. If you are not a native language speaker, and you never knew those words, then it was never an ageing problem.
However, if you find yourself not able to find the right words to explain something, or you suddenly stop mid–sentence and get lost for words, seek help.
Difficulty with directions and spatial orientation
If you find it difficult to see or read signs, it could be normal ageing. Confusing a long set of instructions is also understandable and acceptable.
But if you start confusing the once–familiar landmarks such as your office’s parking lot entrance, or you start getting disoriented on the way to your neighbourhood garden, it is not a good sign.
If you start finding difficulty in following step–by–step instructions or simple directions (“Go straight, and then turn left. Take the third right”, etc), seek help.
Difficulty completing routine tasks
Difficulty with operating a TV remote, or sending a message on a mobile phone, could be a part of normal ageing. This is because your fingers may not work well, as you age.
But, if you start facing problems adding a few numbers, playing a card game with complicated rules, or handling your washing machine settings, seek help.
Difficulty following storylines
If you forget or miss hearing, some details from a long story, it could be a part of normal ageing.
However, if you get confused following a storyline of a TV serial, or struggle to follow a string of conversations, seek help. This is a very good sign that something is wrong.
Everyone makes mistakes in life. That is part of normal life.
However, if you make any bad decision that shows poor judgement, watch out. This could involve gifting a large sum of money to the wrong people, buying costly items, etc. This is definitely a sign that you would never have taken such a decision in your earlier life.
Withdrawal from social life
If you cut back on your social life because you hear less, feel weaker, or have ailments, that is a part of normal ageing.
However, if you start feeling listless, lose interest in hobbies, or don’t feel like spending time with friends and family, these could be some early signs of dementia.
Change in mood
Most ageing people develop a routine. They get irritated if that routine is disturbed. Also, they get very rigid in their opinions. This is normal ageing.
Since people with dementia start forgetting things such as their friend’s name, and why they went to the bank or got lost on the way home, they start craving routine. Any new experience is frightful and avoidable. They become suspicious, confused and anxious.
If you are facing any of these, seek help. However, in general, it is difficult to notice these changes in yourself. So, if a family member or a friend points them out to you, pay attention.
When to act on signs of memory loss
Earlier, we saw various ways memory can be affected due to life–related causes. Each of them needs a solution specific to that cause. None of them is an early warning of dementia.
Dementia is a specific category of memory loss. It involves problems such as vascular dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease. And early action can prevent or slow down the degradation.
Hence, it is important to seek medical help if you notice the warning signs of dementia. The earlier you seek help, the better it is.
With an early diagnosis and treatment, the progression of dementia could be slowed down, though currently there is no cure.
And, while it is not the purpose of this article, here are some options you have, along with medical treatment. Check with your doctor.
Treating memory loss
- Cholinesterase inhibitors
Supplements include the following:
- Omega 3 fish oil
- Antioxidants such as Coenzyme Q10 and vitamin E
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B–1
- Vitamin B–6
- Vitamin B–9
- Vitamin B–12
Herbs that can help are:
- Gingko biloba
- Green tea
- Bramhi (bacopa monnieri)
- Lemon balm
First published on: 12th April 2017
Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Last Updated on: 30th April 2023