Why Your Memory Is Bad and What to Do About It

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Memory loss happens at all ages. Knowing the difference between normal and serious memory problems is important. Learn about the actions you should take.

Having 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 loss is an inevitable part of getting older.

If it gets bad enough, you may be worried 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 and is nothing to be alarmed about. (1)

Here are 20 signs that your memory lapses fall within what’s considered a normal range: (2, 3)

  • 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 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 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. 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 realize 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.

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)

It should come as no surprise that the abuse of recreational drugs and alcohol leads to memory loss. (7)

But even dehydration can temporarily impact mental performance. (8)

Nutritional deficiencies are quite common and can also be responsible for memory loss and other cognitive problems. (9, 10, 11)

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 so 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, and a poor diet.

Binge Drinking and Recreational Drug Use

Binge drinking and recreational drug use are the most serious reasons this group has 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 you become unable to form new long-term memories. (14)

Multitasking

Many young people are glued to their electronic devices and practice being multitaskers, which is bad news for their brain function 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!

EMF Exposure

Most young adults also sleep with their cell 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)

Blue Light

And finally, the blue light emitted from computer devices is especially disruptive to brain-restorative sleep. (18)

Two hours of tablet use before bed can 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)

If you can answer yes to these questions, it’s possible your memory lapses are something to be concerned about: (22, 23)

  • 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 you don’t know where you are or that you left 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 you already have plenty at home.
  • Sometimes it’s 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 it. Others have also expressed concern. They’ve questioned your judgment, your ability to take care of yourself, or have mentioned 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 what 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 precedes dementia.

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What to Do If Your Memory Loss Seems Serious

If you show signs of serious memory loss, you may understandably be concerned that your condition may lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

While that’s possible, it’s more likely you have an underlying health condition or 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

According to RightDiagnosis.com’s online symptom checker, there are over 380 underlying health conditions that can cause forgetfulness. (25)

These include AIDS, cancer, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, stroke, thyroid disorders, tuberculosis, and West Nile virus. (2627)

Memory loss can be brought on by diseases or trauma to the head including concussion, brain surgery, brain infection, or stroke, or it can be a symptom of a mental health disorder such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. (28)

Medications That Cause Memory Loss

Memory loss is an extremely common side effect of prescription drugs.

Armon B. Neel, Jr, PharmD, CGP, FASCP is a geriatric pharmacist who has authored 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 are 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 poor memory, you might be concerned that Alzheimer’s is the only explanation left.

But this is still probably not the case.

Here’s why.

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.

illustration showing that dementia is an umbrella term
There are over 100 types of dementia. Alzheimer’s is just one of them. (Image courtesy of University of Toronto Neurowiki)

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.

Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions, such as memory and language skills, are significantly impaired. (30)

There are over 100 types of dementia and Alzheimer’s is just one of them. (31)

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, responsible for about 60% of dementia cases. (32)

The remaining dementia cases are due to a wide range of medical conditions including: (33)

  • 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)
  • alcoholism
  • drug use (both prescription and recreational)
  • depression
  • 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 mean it will develop into Alzheimer’s later.

The Next Step: Talk to Your Doctor About Your Memory Concerns

If you suspect your memory loss is serious, I urge you to talk to your doctor.

Insist that she 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 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, you may want to 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 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 the causes of your memory loss.

And regardless of your situation, your brain can benefit from adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle.

READ NEXT: 36 Proven Ways to Improve Your Memory