Memory Loss

“Memory loss” is a broad term for any issue with forming, storing or recalling memories. It can happen with acute conditions or it can be a long-term concern. It’s also more likely to happen with increasing age. Some causes are treatable, and there are steps you can take now to help yourself should you or a loved one experience it in the future.


What is memory loss?

Memory loss is when you have consistent issues remembering things you could previously recall. It can be either temporary or permanent. Some forms of it are more likely to happen as you age.

The word “memory” describes several interconnected abilities. Those abilities rely on many different areas of your brain working together properly. Memory loss can happen when memory-related brain areas don’t work as they should.

Commonly, memory loss is a symptom of other medical conditions. It’s also important to know that minor memory difficulties, like taking longer to remember things, are typical as you age. If it simply takes longer to remember things but your memory still works, it’s less likely to be a form of disease However, if you’ve experienced something that makes you question if you have memory loss, you’re certainly not alone.

What are the different types of memory loss?

Memory loss can be acute and happen suddenly. It can also be progressive, meaning it happens repetitively and worsens gradually over time.

  • Acute memory loss: Commonly known as amnesia, this usually happens because of a sudden illness, injury or other events that disrupt your memory processes.
  • Progressive memory loss: This is memory loss that happens gradually. It’s sometimes a symptom of a degenerative brain disease.


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What are the first signs of memory loss?

It’s important to understand that progressive memory loss isn’t just slowed recall. If you can remember things with enough time and without hints, it’s probably not true memory loss.

Memory loss is one of the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is when there are notable changes in your memory or other aspects of your cognition, like language. Your daily functioning remains the same, but there’s a noticeable difference. It can be one of the first signs of developing dementia or similar conditions, but it’s not a universal symptom of these diseases.

Progressive memory loss that becomes more severe than MCI can take years before it becomes apparent. But some conditions involve an accelerated version of this, causing memory loss to happen over several months or a few years.

What does memory loss look like?

Again, it’s important to know that true memory loss isn’t just slowed recall. If you can remember things with enough time and without hints, it’s probably not memory loss.

Memory loss can often look like the following:

  • Asking the same question multiple times.
  • Trouble remembering recent conversations.
  • Misplacing commonly used items.
  • Missing appointments.
  • Forgetting to pay bills or handle other responsibilities.

If these symptoms appear with any of the following, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider:

  • Trouble saying or finding the right word (aphasia).
  • Having difficulty with tasks you could do previously without issue (apraxia).
  • Trouble recognizing things, such as faces or familiar items (agnosia).
  • Trouble with impulse control, planning or concentrating attention (executive dysfunction).


Possible Causes

What are the most common causes of memory loss?

Acute (sudden) and gradually progressive memory loss tend to have different causes.

Acute memory loss (amnesia) causes

Amnesia is usually because of a condition or event that damages or disrupts how parts of your brain work. The most common causes include:

  • Alcohol-related “blackouts.”
  • Aneurysms or brain bleeds.
  • Brain surgery or similar procedures (especially surgeries to remove or scar part of your brain to prevent severe seizures that aren’t treatable with medication).
  • Environmental toxins like carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Cancer treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
  • Traumatic brain injury (including concussion).
  • Stroke (especially ischemic stroke) or other causes of brain ischemia or hypoxia.
  • Delirium.
  • Mood disorders.
  • Psychosis.
  • Medications, including anesthetics, opioid painkillers, benzodiazepines and more (some medications see use alongside anesthesia because they block memory formation during surgery, which is rare but possible).
  • Migraine.
  • Nonmedical drug use.
  • Seizures.
  • Infections.
  • Witnessing traumatic events.

Gradually progressive memory loss causes

Progressive memory loss tends to unfold over time because of disruptions in brain activity. When it happens with degenerative brain diseases, memory worsens as brain loss spreads.

Conditions that most often cause progressive memory loss include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Other neurodegenerative disorders, like dementia with Lewy bodies, Huntington’s disease and primary progressive aphasia.
  • Vascular disorders of the brain.
  • Brain tumors.
  • Multiple sclerosis.

Memory loss-like issues

It’s also important to note that trouble remembering things can happen when you’re tired or having issues with the quality of your sleep. This isn’t memory loss. Your brain just isn’t working at its best, and it’s struggling to access or form memories.

Care and Treatment

How is memory loss treated?

At present, there’s no way to treat memory loss itself. The main approach is to recognize and eliminate the underlying cause if possible, making it as easy as possible for your brain to heal.

Some newer treatments are available for degenerative brain diseases, but these vary widely depending on the disease and other factors. Your healthcare provider is the best person to tell you more about possible treatments and which they recommend.

What can I do at home to treat memory loss?

Sudden memory loss needs immediate medical attention. You shouldn’t treat it at home without first seeking emergency care.

Progressive memory loss is something that needs evaluation as soon as possible. This is typically the case for people with an undiagnosed degenerative brain disease and whose memory loss becomes apparent to loved ones. Seeing a healthcare provider as soon as possible can help with a diagnosis. Once your healthcare provider (or your loved one’s provider) knows why you have memory loss, they can offer treatment options.

What are the possible complications or risks of not treating memory loss?

Amnesia often happens with a current medical issue. Many of these are treatable, but time is usually a key factor. That’s why sudden amnesia always needs medical attention. Brain damage (and the corresponding memory loss) may become permanent without it.

Progressive memory loss also may be treatable, depending on why it happens. When it’s treatable, early care offers the best chances for a positive outcome.


Is memory loss preventable?

Progressive memory loss usually isn’t preventable.

Amnesia is sometimes preventable, depending on the cause. Some ways to prevent it or reduce the risk of developing it include:

  • Wear safety equipment. Head injuries are one of the most common causes of injuries that can cause memory loss. Using safety equipment can help you avoid injuries that cause brain damage and memory loss. Examples include helmets and seat belts (or other vehicle safety restraints).
  • Manage health conditions. Conditions that can increase your risk of stroke (which can lead to memory loss) are often manageable. Conditions you can manage include Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure (hypertension). You should also manage other conditions that can affect your brain, like epilepsy.
  • Manage mental health conditions. Many mental health conditions are treatable. Depression, which may cause cognitive problems, often responds to medication and/or therapy.
  • Reach and maintain a weight that’s healthy for you. You can reduce your risk of circulatory conditions affecting your brain by managing what you eat and how active you are. While it’s not always possible to prevent these issues completely, you may be able to delay them or keep them from being more severe.
  • Don’t ignore infections. Ear and eye infections can spread to your brain, causing widespread disruptions, severe complications or even life-threatening issues. Treating infections sooner rather than later can help you avoid that.
  • Take medications as prescribed. Memory loss is much less likely when you take medications exactly as prescribed.
  • Go for your yearly physical with your primary provider. Avoid unnecessary medication.
  • Avoiding nonmedical drug use is also a key way to avoid memory loss. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Moderate alcohol consumption is two drinks per day (14 or fewer per week) for men and people assigned male at birth and one drink per day (seven or fewer per week) for women and people assigned female at birth.

When To Call the Doctor

When should memory loss be treated by a doctor or healthcare provider?

Memory loss usually needs medical care, but it’s not always an emergency.

Amnesia always needs medical attention. It can be a symptom of a stroke, aneurysm or other severe brain condition. If you know you have a brain-related condition that can cause amnesia, ask your healthcare provider when you should get medical care related to amnesia.

You should see a healthcare provider if you notice signs of progressive memory loss in yourself or a loved one. Doing so sooner can help uncover the reason for the memory loss and offer the chance to treat it in the early stages (if possible).

Early care also helps you plan for the future if you have a permanent condition. One thing you can do is have conversations with your loved ones about what you want if you can’t make choices for yourself. It’s also a good idea to put any wishes you have for your medical care into writing.

Additional Common Questions

Can depression cause memory loss?

Yes, depression can cause memory loss. That’s because depression can have a disruptive effect on many areas of your brain. The disruptions make it harder for those areas to work or communicate with other areas. Your memory depends on cooperative work and processing, so depression can cause memory loss. It’s crucial to recognize and treat depression.

Can suppressing emotions cause memory loss?

Suppressing emotions may be a possible contributor to memory loss. Research shows suppressing emotions may have a link to an increased risk of developing dementia or another memory loss-causing condition. However, researchers don’t know if it’s a direct link and if emotion suppression is causing that memory loss. More research is necessary to determine if it’s a true cause or happens for another reason.

How do you deal with memory loss?

How you deal with memory loss can depend on what’s causing it. If you have amnesia, there are specific ways you can adapt and compensate. Some of these can also help with progressive memory loss.

Steps you can take include:

  • Adapt and compensate. Use calendars, planners, notepads, smartphone apps or any other effective tools you prefer. It’s a common misconception that using items like this weakens your memory. On the contrary, it actually “primes” your memory and keeps it working.
  • Stay engaged and be social. Spending time with others socially can help stave off memory decline. It keeps many areas of your brain engaged and keeps you using skills and abilities that support your memory abilities.
  • Find ways to be active. Physical activity can help your brain. Your healthcare provider can help you find ways or offer options to help you stay physically active regardless of your age or needs.
  • Feed your curiosity. Try to keep learning new things and keep your brain engaged with hobbies, crafts, puzzles or games. These activities spur your brain to keep working, which can help delay memory loss.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Memory loss can be a frightening possibility to consider, especially if you think you see the symptoms in yourself. If you’re worried about memory loss, you should talk to your healthcare provider. They can look for or diagnose any issues you might have or offer suggestions. Proper diagnosis is crucial. If you have a health concern causing memory loss, your provider can offer treatment suggestions and other ways to help you.

If you have a loved one who shows signs of memory loss, you should talk to them about it. While these conversations might be difficult or unpleasant, approaching them gently and compassionately can make a big difference in your loved one’s quality of life and even their safety. Talking about it now can help them find ways to work around or adapt to any changes they’re experiencing. It can also help avoid difficult choices or circumstances in the future.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 06/01/2023.

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