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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Reversible Causes of Memory Change


June 23, 2014

Memory Loss
31393
Assess Your Health
Reversible Causes of Memory Change
Reversible Causes of Memory Change
htmMemoryCauses
There are many other causes of memory change -- that is, causes other than aging.
347135
InteliHealth
2010-02-10
f
InteliHealth/Harvard Medical Content
2012-08-24

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Reversible Causes of Memory Change
 
Certain factors and medical conditions can contribute to a change in memory function. Early diagnosis of these is a patient's best weapon and is of vital importance. If left unchecked and undiagnosed, these conditions can cause irreversible damage. The following is a list of factors to consider when assessing memory loss:
Fortunately, memory loss caused by illness or lifestyle choices can be prevented or remedied.
 
Stress
 
Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress, and how people cope with it is extremely important. Major life stress and/or prolonged stress can impair memory function and contribute to memory loss. Learning how to manage your stress and anxiety is part of keeping your memory functioning at peak performance. However, some stresses — such as a catastrophic event or loss of a loved one — can have a serious effect on your memory. In most cases, however, memory is completely restored if you manage your stress early and seek treatment.
 
Sleep Disorders
 
At least six hours of sleep each night are essential for memory to perform at its peak. Regular sleep habits also make you less forgetful. Research shows a direct link between sleep deprivation and memory loss. Optimizing sleep time will make you not only more rested, but also less forgetful and better able to cope with stress.
 
Depression
 
Sometimes, depression, particularly after the loss of a loved one, can mimic the signs of memory loss. You may become forgetful and less organized. Although there is evidence that depression can affect memory loss, by and large memory function should return to normal as depression lifts. If it does not, a qualified health-care provider should explore other causes to find the root of the problem.
 
Metabolic Disease
 
Diseases of the thyroid gland affect one in 10 elderly people and can have a direct effect on memory function. However, the effects of thyroid problems on memory function are not limited to the elderly; people of any age can be affected. Certain other metabolic diseases, such as diabetes or failure of the lungs, liver or kidneys, are known to have an effect on memory function. Adequate treatment and control of these functions can improve overall brain/memory function.
 
Alcoholism
 
It is known that alcohol abuse results in memory loss and possibly dementia. Initially, alcoholics develop short-term memory loss followed by amnesia, which results in the loss of long-term memory. Although each individual has a different threshold for alcohol tolerance, general guidelines identify "moderate" drinking as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Some individuals have genetic factors that may predispose them to alcohol dependency. If you have a genetic predisposition, you should be especially vigilant and be aware of the potentially damaging affects alcohol can have on your brain function.
 
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
 
Vitamin B12 is essential for optimal brain function. A lack of this vitamin actually can cause permanent damage to brain cells. If you drink or smoke, you are at an even greater risk of having vitamin deficiencies (smoking and drinking leach nutrients from the body). Everyone has a different rate of absorption for nutrients; as you age, your absorption rate slows down, making it more difficult for your system to get the essential vitamins that it requires. There is treatment for vitamin deficiency in the form of a monthly vitamin injection of B12. If you are B12 deficient, addressing the issue early can help you recover lost memory function, although you may not recover all of it. Failure to treat this condition leads to worsening memory loss and progressive nerve damage.
 
Infections
 
There are many infections that can lead to a change in mental state, most notably meningitis and encephalitis — both infections that affect the meninges (the nerves surrounding the brain). After such an illness, patients may have memory loss that can continue for months. Chest, lung, urinary and other infections may lead to acute confusion, particularly in the elderly. Prompt identification and treatment of infection are essential and reduce the chance of long-term, permanent consequences.
 
Drugs
 
Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs can affect memory function, as can certain drug interactions. Check with your health-care provider or pharmacist about possible drug interactions that may be affecting your memory. Certain classes of drugs are known to affect memory and brain function. These include sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, painkillers, antihistamines (allergy medications) and antidepressants. As with vitamins, drugs are absorbed at varying rates. As you age and your metabolism slows down, drugs stay in your system for a longer period of time. Any drug-related impairment is most often resolved, and memory returns to normal once the drug is discontinued.

 

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