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Feature:
Memory & Forgetfulness

Understanding Memory Loss

Girl looking puzzled

We've all forgotten a name, our keys, or if we locked the front door. It's only normal…once in a while. However, forgetting how to make change, use the telephone, or find your way home may signal a more serious memory problem.

What is mild forgetfulness?

Some of us do get more forgetful as we age. It may take longer to learn new things, call up certain words, or find our glasses. These are often signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.

If you're worried about being forgetful, see your doctor. Tell him or her what's bothering you. Be sure to make a follow-up appointment to check your memory in the next six months or year. If you're afraid you'll forget, ask a family member, friend, or the doctor's office to remind you.

Man working crossword puzzle

What can I do about mild forgetfulness?

You can do many things to help keep your memory sharp and stay alert. Look at the list below for some helpful ideas.

Here are some ways to help your memory:

  • Learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship.
  • Spend time with friends and family.
  • Use memory tools—to-do lists, reminder notes to yourself, big calendars.
  • Put your wallet or purse, keys, and glasses in the same place each day.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Exercise and eat well.
  • Don't drink a lot of alcohol.
  • Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.


Some Treatable Causes of Memory Loss

As we age, our bodies change, including the brain. In older adults, some memory problems are related to treatable health conditions, such as:

  • Drugs—These include sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, painkillers, antihistamines (allergy medications), and antidepressants.
  • Vitamin B12 Deficiency
  • Alcoholism
  • Brain tumors or infections
  • Thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders
  • Emotional stress, anxiety, or depression

What is a serious memory problem?

Concerned wife and husband

Serious memory problems make everyday things hard to do. You may find it hard to drive, shop, or even talk with a friend. Signs of serious memory problems may include:

  • asking the same questions over and over again
  • getting lost in places you know well
  • not being able to follow directions
  • becoming more confused about time, people, and places
  • not taking care of yourself—eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe

What can I do about serious memory problems?

See your doctor if you are having any of the problems listed above. It's important to find out the cause. Once you know, you can get the right treatment.

Help for serious memory problems

What can I do if I'm worried about my memory?

See your doctor. If your doctor thinks your memory problems are serious, you may need a complete health check-up. The doctor will review your medicines and may test your blood and urine. She or he also checks your memory, problem solving, counting, and language skills.

The doctor also may suggest a brain scan to show the normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the cause of the problem is discovered, you can ask what treatment might be best for you.

What you need to know

There are differences between normal forgetfulness and more serious memory problems. It's important to understand the causes of memory problems and how they can be treated. You can get help for mild and serious memory problems.

See your doctor if you are worried about your memory. It's important to find out what is causing your memory problems.

The following "memory helpers" may help you help your loved ones:

  • big calendars to highlight important dates and events
  • "to do" lists 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)
Mother and Daughter

What can family members do to help?

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

Read More "Memory & Forgetfulness" Articles

Understanding Memory Loss / Memory Conditions at a Glance / NIH Research

Summer 2013 Issue: Volume 8 Number 2 Page 16-17