Memory loss – should you be worried?

Memory loss
Memory loss

Introduction

Memory loss, also called amnesia, happens when a person loses the ability to remember information and events they would normally be able to recall.

It could be something that happened seconds or minutes ago, or a memorable event that occurred in the past. The loss of memory may have started suddenly, or it may have been getting worse over the last year or so.

It’s normal to become a bit forgetful as you get older. However, memory loss could be a symptom of something more serious and should be checked by a GP.

Memory loss can be distressing for the person affected, and their family. Relatives may fear the worst and assume it’s caused by dementia, but this often isn’t the case.

The following information will tell you:

what to do if you’re worried about memory loss

how to tell if it could be caused by dementia

the most common causes of memory loss (but don’t rely on this to self-diagnose a condition)

how to cope with a poor memory

What to do if you’re worried about memory loss


See your GP if you’re worried because you or someone you care for has lost their memory. They’ll do an initial assessment and ask questions about symptoms, family history and lifestyle. They may also arrange a blood test.

Memory loss has a wide range of possible causes, depending on the type of memory loss.

Doctors classify memories as either:

immediate memories – such as sounds, which are only stored for a few seconds

short-term or recent memories – such as telephone numbers, which stay in your memory for 15 to 20 seconds; the brain can store about seven chunks of short-term information at any time

long-term or remote memories – more permanent memories, which have been reinforced because you’ve repeatedly gone over them in your mind

If your GP thinks you or your relative needs an assessment for dementia, or that there may be another more serious underlying condition, such as brain damage, they’ll refer you to a specialist.

Could memory loss be dementia?

If you’re reading this because you think your memory problems may be a sign of dementia, rest assured that they probably aren’t. A person with dementia won’t usually be aware of their memory loss, or may deny it.

Your memory loss is likely to be caused by something much more common and treatable, such as depression.

You may be worried that someone you care for has dementia. However, bear in mind around 40% of people over 65 have some type of memory problem, and only 15% will develop dementia each year.

If your instincts are correct, their denial or lack of awareness of their memory loss can make it difficult to convince them to see a GP. This fact sheet includes information about how to persuade your relative to see a doctor (PDF, 848kb).

Signs that someone has dementia

As a general guide:

Dementia usually occurs in people over the age of 65.

The memory loss doesn’t happen suddenly, but gets gradually worse over time.

Someone with dementia will struggle to remember immediate or recent events, but can still recall events that happened a long time ago. This means that if their long-term memory is affected, it probably isn’t dementia.

Read more about the symptoms of dementia.

Common causes of memory loss

GPs often find that people who see them about memory loss are most likely to have:

anxiety

stress

depression

Their memory loss is a result of poor concentration and not noticing things in the first place because of a lack of interest. Sleeping problems often make the memory loss worse.

Your GP may suggest trying antidepressants. If you have depression or anxiety, your memory problems should get better as the depression or anxiety improves.

An elderly person with memory loss is likely to have depression if they also experience changes in behaviour, such as hoarding or being bad tempered.

Other common causes of memory loss are:

a head injury – for example, after a car accident

stroke – this cuts off some of the blood supply to the brain and causes brain tissue to die

These will cause sudden memory loss, where you either forget events that happened before the trauma (retrograde amnesia), or you forget everything that happened after the trauma (anterograde amnesia).

Less common causes of memory loss

Less commonly, memory loss can be caused by:

an underactive thyroid – where your thyroid gland (found in the neck) doesn’t produce enough hormones

certain types of medication, such as sedatives and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease

long-term alcohol misuse

bleeding in the brain (subarachnoid haemorrhage)

vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency – for example, as the result of a digestive problem

transient global amnesia – problems with blood flow to part of the brain, which causes sudden episodes of memory loss that a person can’t recall afterwards

psychogenic amnesia – a stressful or traumatic event that causes someone to block out the memory, leaving them unable to remember important information

a brain tumour

Click on the links above for more information about these conditions.

Tips for coping with a poor memory

Keep everyday items, such as car keys, in the same place and try to do things in the same order each time.

Write information down, and keep paper and a pencil near the phone.

Keep a diary at home as well as at work to remind you to do daily tasks.

Use an alarm to help you remember to do something in the future, such as taking something out of the oven.

Repeat important information you need to remember back to someone.

What is an autoimmune condition?

What is an autoimmune condition?

For more information on autoimmune conditions please have a look at our previous blog posts on the subject here and here.

Understanding Autoimmune Disease

From

Multiple sclerosis awareness
Multiple sclerosis awareness

[Original article on NHS Choices website]

Ataxia is a term for a group of disorders that affect co-ordination, balance and speech.

Any part of the body can be affected, but people with ataxia often have difficulties with:

balance and walking

speaking

swallowing

tasks that require a high degree of control, such as writing and eating

vision

The exact symptoms and their severity vary depending on the type of ataxia a person has.

Types of ataxia

There are many different types of ataxia, which can be divided into three broad categories:

acquired ataxia – where symptoms develop as the result of trauma, a stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), a brain tumour, nutritional deficiencies, or other problems that damage the brain or nervous system

hereditary ataxia – where symptoms develop slowly over many years and are caused by faulty genes that a person inherits from their parents; the most common type is Friedreich’s ataxia

idiopathic late-onset cerebellar ataxia (ILOCA) – where the brain is progressively damaged over time for reasons that are unclear

Read more about the main types of ataxia.

What causes ataxia?

Ataxia usually results from damage to a part of the brain called the cerebellum, but it can also be caused by damage to other parts of the nervous system.

This damage can be part of an underlying condition such as MS, or can be caused by a head injury, lack of oxygen to the brain, or long-term, excessive alcohol consumption.

Hereditary ataxia is caused by a faulty gene passed on by family members, who may or may not be affected.

Read more about the causes of ataxia.

How ataxia is treated

In most cases, there’s no cure for ataxia and supportive treatment to control the symptoms is necessary.

This may include:

speech and language therapy to help with speech and swallowing problems

physiotherapy to help with movement problems

occupational therapy to help you cope with the day-to-day problems

medication to control muscle, bladder, heart and eye problems

In a few cases, it’s possible to improve ataxia or stop it getting worse by treating the underlying cause.

Read more about treating ataxia.

Outlook

The outlook for ataxia can vary considerably and largely depends on the type of ataxia you have. Some types may remain relatively stable or even improve with time, but most will get progressively worse over many years.

Life expectancy is generally shorter than normal for people with hereditary ataxia, although some people can live well into their 50s, 60s or beyond. In more severe cases, the condition can be fatal in childhood or early adulthood.

For acquired ataxia, the outlook depends on the underlying cause. Some cases may improve or stay the same, while other cases may get gradually worse over time and reduce life expectancy.

Floaters – so what are Floaters and why are they a health problem?

Floaters are small shapes that some people see floating in their field of vision.
Floaters are small shapes that some people see floating in their field of vision.

Floaters are small shapes that some people see floating in their field of vision.

They can be different shapes and sizes and may look like:

tiny black dots

small, shadowy dots

larger cloud-like spots

long, narrow strands

You may have many small floaters in your field of vision or just one or two larger ones. Most floaters are small and quickly move out of your field of vision.

Floaters are often most noticeable when you’re looking at a light-coloured background, such as a white wall or clear sky.

Do floaters affect vision?

Floaters sometimes occur without a person noticing them. This is because the brain constantly adapts to changes in vision and learns to ignore floaters so they don’t affect vision.

Floaters are usually harmless and don’t significantly affect your vision. However, it’s important you have your eyes checked by an optician regularly (at least once every two years).

Larger floaters can be distracting and may make activities involving high levels of concentration, such as reading or driving, difficult.

Find an optician near you.

What causes floaters?

Floaters are small pieces of debris that float in the eye’s vitreous humour. Vitreous humour is a clear, jelly-like substance that fills the space in the middle of the eyeball.

The debris casts shadows on to the retina (the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye). If you have floaters, it’s these shadows you’ll see.

Floaters can occur as your eyes change with age. In most cases, they don’t cause significant problems and don’t require treatment.

In rare cases, floaters may be a sign of a retinal tear or retinal detachment (where the retina starts to pull away from the blood vessels that supply it with oxygen and nutrients).

Read more about the causes of floaters.

Floaters can’t be prevented because they’re part of the natural ageing process.

When to seek medical help

Visit your optician immediately if you notice an increase or sudden change in your floaters, particularly if you notice white flashes and some loss of vision.

Your optician may refer you to an ophthalmologist (a specialist in diagnosing and treating eye conditions) who can check your retina for tears or retinal detachment.

Even though floaters are usually harmless and don’t significantly affect your vision, it’s important you have your eyes checked regularly by an optician (at least once every two years).

Read more about diagnosing floaters.

Treating floaters

In most cases, floaters don’t cause major problems and don’t require treatment. Eye drops or similar types of medication won’t make floaters disappear.

After a while, your brain learns to ignore floaters and you may not notice them.

If your floaters don’t improve over time, or if they significantly affect your vision, a vitrectomy may be recommended. This is a surgical operation to remove the vitreous humour in your eye along with any floating debris and replace it with a saline (salty) solution.

If your retina has become detached, surgery is the only way to re-attach it. Without surgery, a total loss of vision is almost certain. In 90% of cases, only one operation is needed to re-attach the retina.

Read more about treating floaters.

Fatigue – Self-help tips to fight fatigue

Fatigue - Self-help tips to fight fatigue
Fatigue – Self-help tips to fight fatigue
Many cases of unexplained tiredness are due to stress, not enough sleep, poor diet and other lifestyle factors. Use these self-help tips to restore your energy levels.

Eat often to beat tiredness

A good way to keep up your energy through the day is to eat regular meals and healthy snacks every three to four hours, rather than a large meal less often.

Read more about healthy eating.

Perk up with exercise

You might feel too tired to exercise, but regular exercise will make you feel less tired in the long run, and you’ll have more energy. Even a single 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost, and the benefits increase with more frequent physical activity.

Start with a small amount of exercise. Build up your physical activity gradually over weeks and months until you reach the recommended goal of two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as cycling or fast walking, every week.

Read more about starting exercise.

Find out the physical activity guidelines for adults.

Lose weight to gain energy

If your body is carrying excess weight, it can be exhausting. It also puts extra strain on your heart, which can make you tired. Lose weight and you’ll feel much more energetic. Apart from eating healthily, the best way to lose weight is to be more active and do more exercise.

Read more about how to lose weight.

Sleep well

It sounds obvious, but two-thirds of us suffer from sleep problems, and many people don’t get the sleep they need to stay alert through the day. The Royal College of Psychiatrists advises going to bed and getting up in the morning at the same time every day; avoid naps through the day, and have a hot bath before bed (as hot as you can bear without scalding you) for at least 20 minutes.

Read more about how to get a good night’s sleep.

Try these NHS-approved sleep apps to help you sleep well.

Reduce stress to boost energy

Stress uses up a lot of energy. Try to introduce relaxing activities into your day. This could be working out at the gym, or a gentler option, such as listening to music, reading or spending time with friends. Whatever relaxes you will improve your energy.

Read more about how to relieve stress.

Talking therapy beats fatigue

There’s some evidence that talking therapies such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) might help to fight fatigue. See your GP for a referral for talking treatment on the NHS or for advice on seeing a private therapist.

Read more about counselling.

Cut out caffeine

The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommends that anyone feeling tired should cut out caffeine. It says the best way to do this is to gradually stop having all caffeine drinks (this includes coffee, tea and cola drinks) over a three-week period. Try to stay off caffeine completely for a month to see if you feel less tired without it.

You may find that not consuming caffeine gives you headaches. If this happens, cut down more slowly on the amount of caffeine that you drink.

Drink less alcohol

Although a few glasses of wine in the evening helps you fall asleep, you sleep less deeply after drinking alcohol. The next day you’ll be tired, even if you sleep a full eight hours.

Cut down on alcohol before bedtime. You’ll get a better night’s rest and have more energy. The NHS recommends that men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week, which is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or 10 small glasses of low strength wine.

Read more about how to cut down on alcohol.

Drink more water for better energy

Sometimes you feel tired simply because you’re mildly dehydrated. A glass of water will do the trick, especially after exercise.

Read about healthy drinks.