Blaming memory loss on age is so common we even have a term for it. Who hasn’t joked about having a “senior moment” when you forget something? Maybe you blanked on the name of a neighbor or searched the whole house for your cell phone — only to find you were talking on it the whole time.
But memory loss can have many causes that go beyond aging. Certain illnesses and medical conditions can temporarily affect our capacity for recall. So can medicines we take, what we eat, how we exercise, and our quality of sleep.
Memory loss can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, but it isn’t always. What’s more, it can launch a cycle: You dwell on being forgetful, overestimate the severity of the problem, feel more anxious, and find yourself struggling with anxiety-induced forgetfulness.
The reality: Memory loss can happen at any age, for any number of reasons. Checking in with a doctor can help you figure out whether it’s anything to worry about.
When Illness Affects Memory
We tend to think of memory loss as an early sign of cognitive decline or neurological disease. But memory loss can be caused by all sorts of illnesses or ongoing behavioral or physical conditions, including anxiety and depression, thyroid conditions such as hypothyroidism, or vitamin deficiencies. Even heart issues can cause dementia.
Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy report brain fog as a side effect of the drugs, and expectant mothers frequently share stories of “pregnancy brain” — largely a third-trimester phenomenon for which there is only a small amount of supporting research so far.
Insomnia and other sleep conditions, which may seem only mildly annoying to some, can have a profound effect on how the brain functions. Fortunately, many of these conditions are treatable, and their effects on memory are reversible.
This Is Your Brain on Drugs
The medicines you take can have a surprising effect on memory, but it’s not just the ones your doctor prescribes. Over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl and other antihistamine allergy medications also can lead to temporary brain fog and forgetfulness.
Many prescription medications commonly used among older populations have anticholinergic properties, meaning they tend to block a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which also can negatively affect memory.
So, if something slips your mind, don’t assume the worst. It may be that a small adjustment in medications will see your powers of recall roaring back to life.
Brain Games, Socializing and Exercise: Fact vs. Fiction
Crossword puzzles and self-described “brain games” like Sudoku, which claim to increase brain function and memory capacity, have seen a massive spike in popularity. While we’d all love to believe these are quick fixes for memory loss or easy ways to shore up brain power into old age, only a few small studies have confirmed any long-term benefits of these types of activities.
Studies have shown that both socializing and exercising can have at least short-term cognitive benefits. Social interaction provides more visual and aural stimuli overall, which can be a great help in clinical memory improvement. Meanwhile, exercise and diet can lower the risks of high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack — all factors for illnesses later in life that can lead to memory loss.
When Should I Be Concerned?
Consulting a medical professional becomes critical when memory lapses are affecting your ability to live your life or if you’re noticing significant forgetfulness in a loved one. Initial screenings can rule out certain illnesses or identify unexpected factors that may be contributing to your forgetfulness, while neuropsychological testing can bring you closer to an answer.