Understanding Memory Loss: What To Do When You Have Trouble Remembering

Serious memory problems—causes and treatments

Al's story

older couple

Al didn’t know what was happening. He was having a hard time remembering things. He wasn’t eating or sleeping well and didn’t want to see friends. He was confused and irritable.

His wife was worried. She took him to the doctor. It turned out that Al was having a bad reaction to one of his medicines. Once his doctor changed the medicine, Al felt more like himself.

Many things can cause serious memory problems, such as blood clots, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Read below to learn more about causes and treatments of serious memory problems.

Medical conditions

Certain medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. These problems should go away once you get treatment. Some medical conditions that may cause memory problems are:

  • bad reaction to certain medicines.
  • depression
  • not eating enough healthy foods, or too few vitamins and minerals in your body
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • blood clots or tumors in the brain
  • head injury, such as a concussion from a fall or accident
  • thyroid, kidney, or liver problems

Treatment for medical conditions

These medical conditions are serious. See your doctor for treatment.

Gloria's story

older woman in a library

Gloria was feeling sad all the time. She just wanted to sleep all day and night. She was becoming really forgetful, too. Gloria’s nephew Bob was afraid something was very wrong. He took her to see a doctor. The doctor said she had depression and needed to take medicine and see a counselor.

After 3 months, Bob could see the change in his aunt. She was eating and sleeping better. Gloria also was spending more time with friends and doing volunteer work.

Emotional problems

older couple playing table tennis

Some emotional problems in older people can cause serious memory problems. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored can cause you to be confused and forgetful.

Treatment for emotional problems

  • You may need to see a doctor or counselor for treatment. Once you get help, your memory problems should get better.
  • Being active, spending more time with family and friends, and learning new skills also can help you feel better and improve your memory.

Joe’s story

older man speaking with doctor

Joe was almost 74. He was still working part-time. He noticed that he was becoming more forgetful at work. He felt frustrated that it was so hard to find the right words to describe something. His boss told him that he missed a couple of meetings. He started to wonder if he had a serious problem.

Joe’s wife took him to get a complete health check-up. His doctor told Joe that he had mild cognitive impairment, also called MCI. The doctor said there was no treatment for MCI, but that he would keep a close watch on Joe’s memory and thinking skills. Joe felt better knowing there was a reason for his memory problems.

Mild cognitive impairment

(pronounced mild kog-ni-tiv im-pair-ment)

As some people grow older, they have more memory problems than other people their age. This condition is called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. People with MCI can take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI memory problems may include:

  • losing things often
  • forgetting to go to events or appointments
  • having more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age

Your doctor can do thinking, memory, and language tests to see if you have MCI. He or she also may suggest that you see a specialist for more tests. Because MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s really important to see your doctor or specialist every 6 to 12 months. See below for more about Alzheimer’s disease.

Treatment for MCI

  • At this time, there is no proven treatment for MCI. Your doctor can check to see if you have any changes in your memory or thinking skills over time.
  • You may want to try to keep your memory sharp. The list in the previous section suggests some ways to help your memory.

Anna's story

older woman with adult daughter

Anna’s mother was still going strong at 85. She kept busy with friends and church activities. But lately, Anna had noticed changes. Her mother was becoming more forgetful and confused. Also, she was spending a lot of time alone in her house. One day, her mom got lost on her way home from shopping.

Anna knew it was time to get help. She took her mom to the doctor. Anna was really upset to learn that her mom had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been tough, but learning about treatment choices, what to expect in the future, and how to live with the disease has helped the whole family. They’re taking one day at a time.

Alzheimer’s disease

(pronounced Allz-high-merz duh-zeez)

Alzheimer’s disease causes serious memory problems. The signs of Alzheimer’s disease begin slowly and get worse over time. This is because changes in the brain cause large numbers of brain cells to die.

It may look like simple forgetfulness at first, but over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble thinking clearly. They find it hard to do everyday things like shopping, driving, and cooking. As the illness gets worse, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need someone to take care of all their needs at home or in a nursing home. These needs may include feeding, bathing, and dressing.

Treatment for Alzheimer’s disease

  • Taking certain medicines can help a person in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These medicines can keep symptoms, such as memory loss, from getting worse for a time. The medicines can have side effects and may not work for everyone. Talk with your doctor about side effects or other concerns you may have.
  • Other medicines can help if you are worried, depressed, or having problems sleeping.

See "Where can I get more information?" to learn where families can go for help and information.

Sam'​s story

older man with free weights

Sam was an active 70-year-old who felt healthy. He couldn’t believe it when, all of a sudden, he couldn’t remember what somebody told him 5 minutes ago.

He went for a check-up and had some tests, including a brain scan. After reviewing the test results, the doctor told him that his forgetfulness was caused by small strokes. These strokes had damaged some of his brain cells. She said his problem was called vascular dementia.

The doctor told Sam that she couldn’t cure his memory problems. But, she could give him medicine to control his high blood pressure. This medicine also would lower his chances of having more strokes.

Vascular dementia

(pronounced vas-kue-ler duh-men-shuh)

older woman with doctor

Many people have never heard of vascular dementia. Like Alzheimer’s disease, it is a medical condition that causes serious memory problems. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, signs of vascular dementia may appear suddenly. This is because the memory loss and confusion are caused by strokes or changes in the blood supply to the brain. If the strokes stop, you may get better or stay the same for a long time. If you have more strokes, you may get worse.

Treatment for vascular dementia

You can take steps to lower your chances of having more strokes. These steps include:

  • Control your high blood pressure.
  • Treat your high cholesterol.
  • Take care of your diabetes.
  • Stop smoking.

Publication Date: May 2013
Page Last Updated: April 26, 2017