Causes of Memory Loss

As we age, memory loss and forgetfulness can be a concern. Learn about the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's, as well as other treatable and reversible medical conditions that can cause memory loss.

Causes of Memory Loss
What are the Causes of Memory Loss?

Causes of Memory Loss-Dementia vs Alzheimer’s or Another Medical Condition?

As we age, we frequently spend more time worrying about the causes of memory loss. Primarily… because of the fear of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

It is possible that:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Forgetfulness
  • And periodic mental confusion…. may indicate the presence of a condition that is entirely treatable and reversible.

What is Memory?

The ability to remember facts and events from the past is episodic memory. Dates and names, also episodic memory… rely on the hippocampus and its neural connections to the cortex of the brain.

Procedural memory allows us to remember how to ride a bike or drive a car. It does not seem to be associated with causes of memory loss … related to a mal functioning hippocampus. Rather, procedural memory is associated with areas in the basal ganglia of the brain.

This explains why many Alzheimer’s patients can remember how to drive a car. Even though they may not be able to remember where they are going. Neurodegenerative diseases that damage the basal ganglia and cerebellum such as Huntington’s will impair the ability to recall procedural memories.

It seems that Alzheimer’s patients cannot “remember” anything. It is actually their capacity to retrieve memories that is impacted. Scientists believe that all past information is encoded in the brain. They believe that information is retrievable. A hypothesis… supported by several deep-brain electrical stimulation experiments resulted in subjects “remembering” events. They were also able to retrieve scenes from their past they had long forgotten.

When we remember something, the brain is actually “replaying” a specific neural pathway. This pathway was originally created when we first encoded the memory. However, this “review” is not 100 percent identical to the original pattern. This explains why people can have different memories of the same event.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

The primary causes of memory loss … affect a person’s ability to recall and recognize something:

  • Due to breaks in neural connections
  • Incapacitated brains cells that have suffered… damage from lack of blood, oxygen
  • Build up of plaques and tangles.

Dementia can occur without evidence of Alzheimer’s disease due to:

  • Strokes and/or cardiovascular disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Heavy drug use
  • Malnutrition
  • Tumors
  • Brain infections such as syphilis, encephalitis or  Lyme disease
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Head trauma
  • Severe depression, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder
  • Medications

Fortunately, some of these dementias are reversible, such as;

  • Vitamin deficiencies (specifically B1 and B12),
  • Thyroid problems
  • Mental illness
  • Operable tumors
  • Head injuries.

Memory problems caused by … mental disorders, alcoholism or drug use may be reduced or eliminated. This is possible if damage to the brain’s gray matter is minimal. It is also important that the medication prescribed, to correct the condition… is taken as prescribed.

Hundreds of prescribed medications exacerbate forgetfulness and short-term memory loss.

Some of these more well-known medications include:

  • Ambien (sleep aid)
  • Effexor (antidepressant)
  • Imitrex (nasal spray)
  • Maxalt (for migraines)
  • Prinzide (hypertension)
  • Xanax (anxiolytic)

Symptoms of Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Memory problems from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia begin as mild cognitive issues. These worsen over time. Decreased blood flow or the build up of plaques and tangles may be affecting the brain’s ability to function.

These cause:

  • Inability to communicate
  • Mental confusion, involving place, time and dates.
  • Sudden spells of agitation and anxiety
  • Inappropriate social behavior (laughing aloud at a funeral, for example)
  • Failing to properly follow through with necessary everyday tasks… hygiene, preparing meals and paying bills).

Additional Causes of Memory Loss

Some less common medical conditions that may cause memory loss are:

  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Lead poisoning
  • Morgellons disease
  • Pick’s disease
  • Wilson’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (for severe depression)

Only two of these conditions are reversible–lead poisoning and ElectroConvulsive Therapy. Removing the individual from the cause of their memory loss… allows the brain to return to normal function. As long as no underlying medical condition occurred as a result of chronic exposure.

How Memory Loss is Diagnosed

Physicians will use blood tests to rule out:

  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Thyroid disease
  • Infections as causes of memory loss.

Brain imaging scans such as MRIs and CTs can detect… abnormal brain shrinkage or ventricle enlargement. These are associated with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

EEGs determine whether a deviance exists in brain wave patterns. These are generated by the electrical system of communication among neurons.

Cerebral angiograms are conducted when a physician suspect:

  • Arteriosclerosis
  • Brain tumors
  • Damaged blood vessels in the brain are causing memory deficits.

Preventing cognitive decline may be possible. In cases where Alzheimer’s, stroke and substance abuse is involved. Lifestyle choices such as:

  • Regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy, low-fat diet
  • Getting enough sleep
  • And enjoying a variety of tasks that create new neuronal connections. This can be learning a new language or volunteering to help nonprofit organizations.

Senior citizens also need to have complete health examinations every six months. These exams should include a Mini Mental Status Exam or a St Louis Mental Status Exam. This will give your health care professional a baseline. If done, this can catch the causes of memory loss in the early stages so that treatment can be expedited.

Have more questions? Check out the Frequently Asked Question section of the website. You will find a lot of different questions answered directly.
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