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.
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.