Memory loss happens at all ages. Knowing the difference between normal and serious memory problems is important. Learn about the actions you should take.
A bad memory is frustrating and can be downright scary.
If your memory isn’t what it used to be, you might assume that your memory issues are an inevitable part of getting older.
If your memory gets bad enough, you may think that you’re headed for dementia or Alzheimer’s.
But memory problems can happen at any age and, in fact, are usually more a result of lifestyle habits than age-related mental decline.
There are many potential reasons for a bad memory, and fortunately, most are not serious or permanent.
Just as importantly, there are many steps you can take to improve your memory.
20 Signs Your Bad Memory Is Within Normal Limits
Some forgetfulness happens to everyone from time to time; it’s nothing to be alarmed about. (1)
- You remember the plot of a movie you recently watched, but you can’t remember the title. Or you can picture an actor’s face, but you can’t recall his name.
- You can’t remember a word, but it’s not a conversation stopper. You usually think of it later or replace it with another word while you’re talking.
- You know your way around town. But when giving directions to others, you might not remember the names of all the streets.
- You walk into a room and can’t remember why you are there. This is a well-known phenomenon — walking through a doorway truly does initiate a momentary memory lapse. (4)
- You occasionally misplace everyday items like your keys, glasses, or remote control, but, for the most part, you remember where things are kept.
- You sometimes call your kids, coworkers, or pets by the wrong names, but you definitely know who is who.
- You’ve been known to forget and miss an occasional appointment.
- You don’t always remember what you just read. (This is most likely a concentration problem, rather than a memory problem.)
- You remember the main points of conversations, but not always the details. So, you may remember the make and color of your friend’s new car, but forget the model.
- You can usually compensate for your memory lapses so that they have little impact on your day-to-day life or performance at work.
- Your memory is still good enough that you recognize when you’re forgetful.
- You generally make good decisions, and rarely agonize over them.
- If you ask someone a question, their answer registers with you. You don’t keep asking the same thing over and over.
- You may not always know the exact date, but you always know the year, month, and the day of the week.
- When you use memory tools like notes, lists, and appointment calendars, you find them helpful.
- Your memory can be jogged if someone prompts you. So, when your significant other asks “Do you know what today is?,” you understand that you forgot their birthday.
- You know how to use appliances and electronics around the house.
- You’re able to learn new things when you want to or need to.
- You find your forgetfulness more annoying than worrying and can usually laugh about it.
- You sometimes feel frustrated about your bad memory, but not downright angry or in denial about it.
If your memory is not much worse than it was a few years ago, that’s another indication there’s probably nothing to worry about.
For example, if you’ve always had a terrible sense of direction, getting lost now is normal for you and not a sign of cognitive decline.
To sum up, small or short-term issues are generally not a problem.
Larger or lasting changes in your memory, however, merit a closer look.
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Lifestyle Causes of “Normal” Memory Loss
If your less-than-stellar memory is annoying to you but falls within the normal range, now is the perfect time to examine how your lifestyle is affecting your brain.
Often, a bad memory is merely a side effect of a hectic or unhealthy lifestyle.
A diet high in sugar and unhealthy trans fats can put you in a brain fog and leave you feeling anxious or depressed as well.
When your diet is poor, the brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to create healthy brain cells and form the brain chemicals that control memory.
Being stressed out makes you more emotional and less able to recall facts. (5)
Even moderate sleep loss can affect your mental performance as much as being legally drunk. (6)
But even dehydration can temporarily impact mental performance. (8)
Thus, you can improve your memory by getting enough quality sleep, eating a brain-healthy diet, and taking active measures to reduce stress.
Memory Loss Causes in Young Adults
If you’re a young adult, you may be mystified as to why your memory is bad.
Typically, we think of memory issues as going hand in hand with aging, but unfortunately, memory loss is becoming surprisingly common in young adults.
One study found millennials (ages 18 to 34) more likely to forget what day it is or where they put their keys than seniors. (12)
Memory loss in young adults is almost always a direct result of an unhealthy lifestyle that includes a lack of sleep, excess stress, a poor diet, and recreational substance use.
Binge Drinking and Recreational Drug Use
Binge drinking and recreational drug use are the most serious reasons that young adults have memory problems.
College students are at high risk for alcohol-induced blackout — drinking to the point of having little or no memory of blocks of time. (13)
During a blackout your brain is literally unable to form new long-term memories. (14)
Many young people are glued to their electronic devices and are avid multitaskers, which is bad news for their mental functioning in several ways. (15)
Multitasking, which requires your brain to toggle back and forth between activities, disrupts short-term memory — the capacity for retaining pieces of information for short periods of time. (16)
Not paying full attention to any one thing makes it hard to remember anything.
Many young adults sleep with their mobile phones by their side, exposing their brains to potentially damaging electromagnetic fields (EMFs) 24/7.
EMF exposure can cause significant disruption in levels of brain chemicals, negatively impacting memory, learning, emotions, and stress levels. (17)
And finally, the blue light emitted from computing devices is especially disruptive to brain-restorative sleep. (18)
Two hours of tablet use before bed has been shown to significantly reduce the level of melatonin, your body’s natural sleep hormone. (19)
Insufficient sound sleep can certainly affect your memory since memory consolidation occurs during sleep. (20)
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15 Signs Your Bad Memory May Be Serious
Now let’s look at signs that your memory issues may be serious.
Some of these you may have noticed yourself, or maybe well-meaning friends or family have expressed their concern to you.
You should listen to them.
Studies show that friends and family can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s even better than high-tech medical tests. (21)
- When watching TV or reading books, you have a hard time following plots.
- You’ve been told you repeat yourself during the same conversation or ask the same question over and over.
- Your memory loss has scared you. Realizing that you don’t know where you are or that you left a burner on the stove on after leaving your home are examples of frightening memory lapses.
- You get lost while taking familiar routes or when you’re close to home.
- You frequently misplace things. You put things in strange places. You’ve even wondered if others are stealing from you.
- You buy items at the store, forgetting that you already have plenty at home.
- You sometimes find it difficult to keep up with everyday tasks like paying bills or preparing food.
- You’ve tried using lists, reminder notes, calendars and such, but they don’t help.
- You’ve experienced personality changes. You’ve become more restless and impatient or quiet and withdrawn.
- Sometimes you forget to eat or can’t remember whether you’ve eaten or not.
- You’re worried that you’re losing your grasp of reality and others have also expressed concern. They’ve questioned your judgment, your ability to take care of yourself, or have mentioned that you’ve acted inappropriately.
- When others bring up these lapses, you get angry, defensive, or deny it.
- You struggle to make decisions about everyday choices like which clothes to wear.
- Your friends and family are subtly trying to take over tasks for you.
- You’re coping, but daily life is becoming more difficult.
Experiencing these symptoms indicates what is considered abnormal forgetfulness. (24)
These symptoms may be early signs of mild cognitive impairment, a stage of cognitive decline that can precede dementia.
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What to Do If Your Memory Loss Seems Serious
If you show signs of serious memory loss, you may be concerned that your condition could lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s.
" Prescription drug interactions may be responsible for as many as three out of four dementia cases.
While that’s possible, it’s more likely that you have an underlying health condition or take a medication that’s causing your memory problems.
So first, we’ll take a look at these two scenarios and, hopefully, ease your worries.
Then we’ll take a look at dementia and Alzheimer’s so that you understand the risks of those as well.
Underlying Health Conditions That Cause Memory Loss
These include both physical and mental health conditions such as:
- bipolar disorder
- brain diseases
- brain injury
- Huntington’s disease
- kidney disorders
- liver disorders
- Lyme disease
- multiple sclerosis
- nutritional deficiencies
- Parkinson’s disease
- post-traumatic stress
- substance abuse
- thyroid disorders
- West Nile virus
Medications That Cause Memory Loss
Memory loss is an extremely common side effect of prescription drugs.
Armon B. Neel, Jr, PharmD, is a geriatric pharmacist who formerly wrote AARP’s “Ask a Pharmacist” column and penned the eye-opening exposé Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?.
He reveals in his book that prescription drug interactions may be responsible for as many as three out of four dementia cases.
This is horrifying, and largely avoidable.
Cholesterol-lowering medications and sleeping pills are two of the worst offenders.
But not all medications that cause memory loss are prescription-only.
Some of the most popular over-the-counter remedies for treating allergies, colds, coughs, skin irritations, insomnia, headaches, and pain cause memory loss by blocking the formation of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. (29)
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Is Your Bad Memory Due to Dementia or Alzheimer’s?
If you’ve ruled out your lifestyle, prescriptions, and health conditions as the causes of your memory issues, you might be concerned that Alzheimer’s is the only explanation left.
But this is still probably not the case.
Dementia vs Alzheimer’s — What’s the Difference?
There is a lot of confusion about what dementia is and how it differs from Alzheimer’s disease.
The terms are often used interchangeably even though they aren’t the same thing.
Let’s clear up the difference.
Dementia is not a specific disease.
It’s an umbrella term used to describe a group of symptoms, including impairments to memory, communication, and thinking.
There are over 100 underlying health conditions that can cause dementia and Alzheimer’s is just one of them. (30)
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, responsible for about 60% of dementia cases. (31)
The remaining dementia cases are due to a wide range of medical conditions including: (32)
- neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s)
- ischemic vascular dementia (resulting from a stroke)
- vascular dementia (also called multi-infarct dementia)
- infectious diseases (such as HIV)
- drug use (both prescription and recreational)
- head trauma
- brain tumors
- nutritional deficiencies
- temporary conditions such as fever, dehydration, or a minor head injury
So you can see that there are still many non-Alzheimer’s possibilities to rule out.
Most forms of dementia are treatable and some are even reversible.
And lastly, rest assured that being diagnosed with a non-Alzheimer’s form of dementia does not necessarily mean that it will develop into Alzheimer’s later.
The Next Step: Talk to Your Doctor About Your Memory Concerns
If you suspect that your memory problem is serious, I urge you to talk to your doctor.
Insist that they look for any possible underlying health conditions and reassess your medications.
The answer could be something as simple as correcting a vision or hearing problem, addressing a nutritional deficiency, or adjusting your medications.
Make sure that you are taking the right dosage and that you aren’t exposing yourself to harmful drug interactions.
Discuss whether all the medications you take are absolutely necessary.
Investigate whether there are better ways to treat your health issues such as practicing stress reduction techniques or making changes in diet, exercise, or other lifestyle factors.
Before your appointment, download the Alzheimer’s Association’s 10-point dementia symptom checklist.
You can use this checklist as talking points to discuss with your doctor.
Also, ask your doctor whether you should take the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam, or SAGE test, before your appointment.
It was designed at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to detect early signs of memory loss and other cognitive impairments.
You can easily take this written test at home using paper and pencil.
The results of your test can help your doctor decide whether further evaluation is needed.
It can also be used as a baseline to monitor any changes in your memory over time.
If You Have a Bad Memory: Take the Next Step
People of all ages can experience some issues with memory loss.
Having a bad memory can be worrying, but fortunately, it is rarely serious.
But if you have reason to believe that your memory loss is serious, talk to your doctor.
You need to rule out medications and underlying health conditions as causes of your memory loss.
But, regardless of your situation, your memory can benefit from adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle.