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How to Recognize and Treat Serious Memory Loss

Some forms of memory loss are temporary and can be treated

Adapted from NIH/National Institute on Aging | August 29, 2012

Many things can cause serious memory problems, like blood clots, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Here are some of the triggers and treatments for serious memory problems.

Medical Conditions

Certain medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. These problems should go away once you get treatment. Conditions that may cause memory loss are:

  • Reaction to certain medicines.
  • Depression.
  • Not eating enough healthy foods, or lacking certain vitamins and minerals.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Blood clots or tumors in the brain.
  • Head injury, like a concussion from a fall or accident.
  • Thyroid, kidney or liver problems.
These medical conditions are serious. See your doctor for treatment.

Emotional Problems

Some emotional problems in older people can cause serious memory problems. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored can cause you to be confused and forgetful.
You may need to see a doctor or counselor for treatment. Once you get help, your memory problems should get better. Being active, spending more time with family and friends, and learning new skills can also help you feel better and improve your memory.

Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Impairment

As some people grow older, they have more memory problems than other people their age. This condition is called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. People with MCI can take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI memory problems may include:
  • Losing things often.
  • Forgetting to go to events and appointments.
  • Having more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age.
Your doctor can do thinking, memory and language tests to see if you have MCI. He or she also may suggest that you see a specialist for more tests. Because MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s really important to see your doctor or specialist every 6 to 12 months. See below for more about Alzheimer’s disease.

At this time, there is no proven treatment for MCI. Your doctor can check to see if you have any changes in your memory or thinking skills over time. You may want to try to keep your memory sharp by engaging with friends and families and learning new skills.

Memory Loss Related to Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease causes serious memory problems. The signs of Alzheimer’s disease begin slowly and get worse over time. This is because changes in the brain cause large numbers of brain cells to die.

It may look like simple forgetfulness at first, but over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble thinking clearly. They find it hard to do everyday things like shopping, driving and cooking. As the illness gets worse, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need someone to take care of all their needs at home or in a nursing home. These needs may include feeding, bathing and dressing.

Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Taking certain medicines can help a person in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These medicines can keep symptoms, such as memory loss, from getting worse for a time. The medicines can have side effects and may not work for everyone. Talk with your doctor about side effects or other concerns you may have.
  • Other medicines can help if you are worried, depressed, or having problems sleeping.
Memory Loss Due to Vascular Dementia

Many people have never heard of vascular dementia. Like Alzheimer’s disease, it is a medical condition that causes serious memory problems. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, signs of vascular dementia may appear suddenly. This is because the memory loss and confusion are caused by small strokes or changes in the blood supply to the brain. If the strokes stop, you may get better or stay the same for a long time. If you have more strokes, you may get worse.

Treatment for Vascular Dementia

You can take steps to lower your chances of having more strokes. These steps include:
  • Control your high blood pressure.
  • Treat your high cholesterol.
  • Take care of your diabetes.
  • Stop smoking.
What if I’m Worried About My Memory?

See your doctor. If your doctor thinks your memory problems are serious, you may need to have a complete health check-up. The doctor will review your medicines and may test your blood and urine. You also may need to take tests that check your memory, problem solving, counting and language skills.
In addition, the doctor may suggest a brain scan. Pictures from the scan can show normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the doctor finds out what is causing your memory problems, ask about the best treatment for you.

What Can Family Members Do to Help?

If your family member or friend has a serious memory problem, you can help the person live as normal a life as possible. You can help the person stay active, go places, and keep up everyday routines. You can remind the person of the time of day, where he or she lives, and what is happening at home and in the world. You also can help the person remember to take medicine or visit the doctor.

Some families use the following things to help with memory problems:
  • Big calendars to highlight important dates and events.
  • Lists of the plans for each day.
  • Notes about safety in the home.
  • Written directions for using common household items (most people with Alzheimer’s disease can still read).
Clinical Trials and Studies

People with Alzheimer’s disease, MCI or a family history of Alzheimer’s may be able to take part in clinical trials, a type of research study. Healthy people with no memory problems and no family history of Alzheimer’s also may be able to take part in clinical trials.

Resources:
Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR)
AD Clinical Trials and Studies Fact Sheet

(MORE: Know when forgetfulness turns serious)

Based on editorial content provided by the NIH/National Institute on Aging from its booklet "Understanding Memory Loss."