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Memory loss

It's completely normal to become a little forgetful as you get older, however, it can sometimes be a symptom of something more serious, so seek medical advice if you are in any doubt.

Memory loss, also known as amnesia, is unusual forgetfulness. It may affect your ability to recall new events or to remember events in the past - or both. Memory loss can develop slowly or suddenly and may be either short term or permanent. It may involve words, phrases or thoughts only, or affect motor memory - when the ability to perform certain motor skills (movements) is lost.

Mild memory loss is usually a result of the normal ageing process while more dramatic memory loss is usually associated with trauma, such as a blow to the head or a condition, such as diabetes or dementia.

Causes of memory loss

Damage to the many areas of the brain involved in memory function can result in memory loss. Causes of memory loss include:

  • Alcohol or drug abuse - drinking too much has long been established as a cause of memory loss
  • Head injury which can result in memory loss
  • Concussion - which may cause memory loss
  • Stroke - which affects the blood supply to the brain and may result in memory loss
  • Depression, stress and other mental health disorders - when symptoms are not well controlled
  • Dementia - such as Alzheimer's disease when progressive memory loss is severe enough to disrupt functioning and daily life
  • Certain conditions - such as epilepsy, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, HIV, tuberculosis or Huntington's disease
  • Nutritional problems - such as a deficiency in vitamin B12
  • Sleep deprivation - when lack of sleep interferes with the ability to recall or retrieve memories
  • Certain medicines including some antidepressants, sleeping pills and pain medicines

Memory loss caused by concussion

If your memory loss is caused by a concussion, it can be one of two types:

  • Retrograde amnesia - when you can't recall events just before the concussion happened
  • Anterograde amnesia - when you can't recall anything about events after the concussion

Both types usually get better within a few hours.

Memory loss caused by diabetes

Poorly controlled diabetes is associated with memory loss, when levels of glucose affect brain functioning.

It can be triggered during periods of high blood glucose ( hyperglycaemia) and low blood glucose ( hypoglycaemia).

Both can trigger memory problems amongst people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

Memory loss caused by dementia

One of the first signs of dementia is memory loss and, initially, bouts of forgetfulness can be mistakenly attributed to normal ageing or stress. The difference in someone with dementia is the forgetfulness worsens and becomes more severe, ultimately affecting the ability to cope with every day life.

Dementia affects individuals differently. Some remain quite aware and recall numerous facts, memories and experiences from the distant past, but may be forgetful about recent events. Common symptoms include:

  • Forgetting the way home from a familiar place
  • Trouble remembering people's names and names of places
  • Mood swings including sadness, fear or anger
  • Problems communicating, such as talking, reading or writing
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