Memory loss (amnesia) is unusual forgetfulness. You may not be able to remember new events, recall one or more memories of the past, or both.
The memory loss may be for a short time and then resolve (transient). Or, it may not go away, and, depending on the cause, it can get worse over time.
Normal aging can cause some forgetfulness. It is normal to have some trouble learning new material or needing more time to remember it. But normal aging does not lead to dramatic memory loss. Such memory loss is due to other diseases.
Memory loss can be caused by many things. To determine a cause, your health care provider will ask if the problem came on suddenly or slowly.
Many areas of the brain help you create and retrieve memories. A problem in any of these areas can lead to memory loss.
Memory loss may result from a new injury to the brain, which is caused by or is present after:
- Brain tumor
- Cancer treatment, such as brain radiation, bone marrow transplant, or chemotherapy
- Concussion or head trauma
- Not enough oxygen getting to the brain when your heart or breathing is stopped for too long
- Severe brain infection or infection around brain
- Major surgery or severe illness, including brain surgery
- Transient global amnesia (sudden, temporary loss of memory) of unclear cause
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke
- Hydrocephalus (fluid collection in the brain)
Sometimes, memory loss occurs with mental health problems, such as:
- After a major, traumatic or stressful event
- Bipolar disorder
- Depression or other mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia
Memory loss may be a sign of dementia. Dementia also affects thinking, language, judgment, and behavior. Common types of dementia associated with memory loss are:
- Alzheimer disease
- Lewy body dementia
- Fronto-temporal dementia
- Progressive supranuclear palsy
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (mad cow disease)
Other causes of memory loss include:
- Alcohol or use of prescription or illegal drugs
- Brain infections such as Lyme disease, syphilis, or HIV/AIDS
- Overuse of medicines, such as barbiturates or (hypnotics)
- ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) (most often short-term memory loss)
- Epilepsy that is not well controlled
- Illness that results in the loss of, or damage to brain tissue or nerve cells, such as Parkinson disease, Huntington disease, or multiple sclerosis
- Low levels of important nutrients or vitamins, such as low vitamin B1 or B12
Test 1: Short Blessed Test or Six Item Cognitive Impairment Test (6CIT Kingshill version)
This is a speedy test that many doctors will carry out for signs of mild cognitive impairment and mild dementia. You can try the test out yourself, but you’ll need to get a friend or family member to run the test for you so you can be scored fairly.
- What year is it (score 4 points for incorrect answer)
2. What month is it now (score 3 point for incorrect answer)
3. Please repeat this name and address after me:
John Brown, 42 Market Street, Bristol
(Say three times. Tell them they need to remember this name and address for later.)
4. Without looking at your watch, say what the time is (score 3 points if time is more than one hour out – e.g. they say 10.45 or 12.15 and the time is 11.30)
5. Count aloud backwards from 20 to 1 (one error gets two points, two or more errors gets four points)
6. Say the months of the year in reverse order (one error gets two points, two or more errors gets four points)
7. Repeat the name and address that you were asked to remember earlier on in the test (score two points for one error, four points for two errors, six points for three errors, eight points for four errors and 10 points for five errors).
The final score will be out of 28. If you scored:
0-4 points: you have normal memory – no further action
5-9 points: you have questionable cognitive impairment – talk to your GP
10+ points: you have clear cognitive impairment – if you haven’t already, talk to your GP