We know that concerns about memory loss are common. There’s always a fear that any slip of the memory could be the start of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. But often, memory issues can be directly related to other medical issues—which can be easily treatable and possibly completely curable. That’s a good reason to visit a doctor if you have any concerns.
What may appear to be significant memory loss may the result of any of the following (either individually or in combination):
Side Effects of Medication
Many prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs can cause memory problems either independently or in combination. This is particularly common in older adults as they metabolize medication differently and are more likely to suffer adverse effects.
One study linked more than 100 common medications (pharmaceutically classified as anticholinergics) to memory loss and dementia in older adults. A separate study found that taking these same medications for as little as 60 days can alter brain function.
Anticholinergics include such common medications as:
- Sleeping pills
- Blood pressure medication
- Arthritis medication
- Muscle relaxants
- Over-the-counter sleeping aids
- Drugs for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal discomfort
- Anti-anxiety medications
A complete list of medications studied and their common brand names can be found here.
Also be aware that recent studies indicate that taking some statins for your heart or taking too many medications can cause memory issues as well. If you have concerns, it is advised you talk with your doctor and make him or her aware of all of the medications you are taking.
Do NOT stop taking any medications without your physician’s knowledge and consent.
Severe dehydration, which is particularly common in older adults, can easily cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss and other symptoms that look like dementia. This is particularly the case if you are taking diuretics or laxatives or suffer from diabetes, high blood sugar or diarrhea. Fortunately, this memory loss is easily reversed by keeping well-hydrated with 6-8 drinks per day. And remember, drinking more alcohol is not a solution as that can cause dehydration, as well (see below).
It’s no secret that alcohol abuse can lead to memory loss—whether short term (not being able to remember what you did at that party last night) or long term. That’s because excessive alcohol use is highly toxic to your brain cells, which can increase the risk of dementia.
In a related manner, excess alcohol consumption can also cause dehydration (see above) and result in a poor diet, which can affect the levels of Vitamin B1 and B12 (see below).
A recent article in IFLScience reported that: “alcohol use disorders were the strongest modifiable risk factor for dementia onset” for both men and women. The study further found that alcohol use disorders were found to contribute to “all other risk factors for dementia onset”, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, emphasizing the significant role that alcohol can play in raising dementia risk and the importance of tackling alcohol abuse.
University College London’s Professor Robert Howard, a professor of old age psychiatry went on to note that: “We have long known that alcohol is directly neurotoxic, thiamine deficiency in alcoholics devastates memory, alcohol-related conditions such as cirrhosis and epilepsy can damage the brain and that vascular brain damage is accelerated by alcohol.”
“Surprisingly,” he continued, “we’ve not traditionally considered alcohol and its misuse as an important risk factor for dementia and we were clearly wrong not to have done so.”
That isn’t to say you need to quit alcohol completely. To play it safe, however, limit your daily intake to just 1-2 drinks. Oddly enough, some studies suggest that red wine in moderation can actually slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin B1 and B12 Deficiency
Vitamins B1 and B12 are vital to healthy brain functioning. This is particularly true for older adults, as their bodies have a much slower absorption rate of these important vitamins. This is particularly true if you smoke or drink.
A lack of B1 can lead to Korsakoff syndrome, which is a form of dementia. However, this can be reversed by supplementing your diet with additional fish, pork, nuts, and seeds.
A lack of B12 can cause a condition called pernicious anemia, which can result in memory loss, slowness, confusion, irritability, apathy, fatigue, and shortness of breath. This deficiency can be reversed with a monthly injection.
The thyroid gland controls your metabolism. And, if your metabolism is too fast, you may feel confused. If it’s too slow, you can feel sluggish or depressed. Either way, thyroid issues can cause memory problems and difficulty concentrating. However, any thyroid condition is completely treatable with regular medication.
If you’re less social than you used to be, recently experienced a major loss or experienced a major life change, you’re at risk for depression. And depression can easily mimic the signs of memory loss. Whether through counseling or medication, however, depression can be treated. And the symptoms of memory loss can be reversed.
Anxiety or Stress
Have you been particularly worried about something? Then your mind is preoccupied. And if your mind is preoccupied, you’ll also struggle to retain memories. What’s more, stress raises the level of cortisol in the brain, which can slow the development of the healthy brain connections needed to form new memories. If you think this is the case for you, there is a host of therapies and medications which can help.
Lack of Sleep or Insomnia
If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain can’t store the facts and events that happened to you. That’s no secret to anyone who’s ever pulled an “all-nighter” cramming for a test. And insomnia, or chronic lack of sleep, only compounds the problem. If you find this is an ongoing problem for you, it would be wise to consult a physician to find the underlying cause—which could be as easily remedied as reducing anxiety, modifying your diet or changing medication.
Any blow to the head can potentially affect your brain and memory, as well. This is in addition to the possibility of a concussion or blood clot. As a result, it’s always advisable to see a physician as soon as possible after you experience such an injury. If needed, proper medication (and possibly surgery) can repair any damage, allowing recovery from any memory loss.
Sometimes, the general anesthetic used in surgery can have a lingering effect. Known as postoperative cognitive decline (POCD), it is generally short-lived but can last up to a few months or even longer for some people. Should you or a loved one be contemplating surgery, it’s recommended that physicians, family members, and caregivers pay particular attention to memory function after surgery to monitor for this condition.
Memory loss doesn’t have to be inevitable as we journey along the gray mile. Some forms of memory loss can be easily treatable and possibly completely curable. That’s a good reason to visit a doctor if you have any concerns.