Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(5):1047-1048

Why am I losing my memory?

There are several reasons why you could be losing your memory. Age is usually the cause. Information is stored in three different parts of your memory: the short-term memory, the recent memory, and the remote memory. Information stored in the short-term memory may include the name of a person you met a few minutes ago. Information stored in the recent memory may include what you ate for breakfast today. Information stored in the remote memory includes things that happened years ago, such as memories of childhood.

Beginning in your 20s, you begin to lose brain cells a few at a time. Your body also starts to make less of the chemicals your brain cells need to work. The older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory. Aging may affect memory by changing the way your brain stores information and by making it harder to remember stored information.

Your short-term and remote memories are not usually affected by aging. But your recent memory may be affected. You may forget names of people you met recently. These are normal changes.

What about when I know a word but cannot recall it?

This is usually just a glitch in your memory. You will almost always remember the word after a while. This problem may become more common as you age. It can be frustrating, but it is not usually serious.

What are some other causes of memory problems?

Many conditions other than aging can cause memory problems. These include depression, other illnesses, dementia (severe problems with memory and thinking, such as Alzheimer's disease), side effects of drugs, strokes, a head injury, and alcoholism.

How can I tell if my memory problems are serious?

A memory problem is serious when it affects your daily life. If you sometimes forget names, you are probably okay. But you may have a more serious problem if you have trouble remembering how to do things you have done many times before, or how to get to places you have been to often, or how to do things that use steps, like following a recipe.

Memory Problems that Are Not Part of Normal Aging

  • Forgetting things much more often than you used to

  • Forgetting how to do things you have done many times before

  • Trouble learning new things

  • Repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation

  • Trouble making choices or handling money

  • Not being able to keep track of what happens each day

Another difference between normal memory problems and dementia is that normal memory loss does not get much worse over time. Dementia gets much worse over several months to several years.

It may be hard to figure out on your own if you have a serious problem. Talk to your family doctor about any concerns you have. Your doctor may be able to help you if your memory problems are caused by a medicine you are taking or by depression.

How does Alzheimer's disease change memory?

Alzheimer's disease starts by changing the recent memory. At first, a person with Alzheimer's disease will remember even small details of his or her distant past but not be able to remember recent events or conversations. Over time, the disease affects all parts of the memory.

Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging, and it is less common than some people think. Only 10 percent of people older than 65 years have Alzheimer's disease, but this number increases to nearly 50 percent of people older than 85 years.

It is important for a person to be tested for Alzheimer's disease early in the disease process. While there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, certain treatments can help slow down the disease and the memory loss.

Where Can I Get More Information?

Ask your doctor

Alzheimer's Association

National Institute on Aging

National Institute of Mental Health

American Psychiatric Association

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