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Memory Loss


Michael C. Levin

, MD, College of Medicine, University of Saskatchewan

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2021 | Modified Sep 2022
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Memory loss is a common complaint in the primary care setting. It is particularly common among older people but also may be reported by younger people. Sometimes family members rather than the patient report the memory loss (typically in an older person, often one with dementia).

Clinicians and patients are often concerned that the memory loss indicates impending dementia Dementia Dementia is chronic, global, usually irreversible deterioration of cognition. Diagnosis is clinical; laboratory and imaging tests are usually used to identify treatable causes. Treatment is... read more . Such concern is based on the common knowledge that the first sign of dementia typically is memory loss. However, most memory loss does not represent the onset of dementia.

The most common and earliest complaints of memory loss usually involve

  • Difficulty remembering names and the location of car keys or other commonly used items

As memory loss becomes more severe, people may not remember to pay bills or keep appointments. People with severe memory loss may have dangerous lapses, such as forgetting to turn off a stove, to lock the house when leaving, or to keep track of an infant or child they are supposed to watch. Other symptoms (eg, depression, confusion, personality change, difficulty with activities of daily living) may be present depending on the cause of memory loss.

Etiology of Memory Loss

  • Age-associated memory impairment (most common)

  • Mild cognitive impairment

  • Dementia

  • Depression

Age-associated memory impairment refers to the worsening of memory that occurs with aging. In people with this condition, it takes longer to form new memories (eg, a new neighbor's name, a new computer password) and to learn new complex information and tasks (eg, work procedures, computer programs). Age-associated memory impairment leads to occasional forgetfulness (eg, misplacing car keys) or embarrassment. However, cognition is not impaired. Given sufficient time to think and answer questions, patients with this condition can usually do so, indicating intact memory and cognitive functions.

Patients with mild cognitive impairment have actual memory loss, rather than the sometimes slow memory retrieval from relatively preserved memory storage in age-matched controls. Mild cognitive impairment tends to affect short-term (also called episodic) memory first. Patients have trouble remembering recent conversations, the location of commonly used items, and appointments. However, memory for remote events is typically intact, as is attention (also called working memory—patients can repeat lists of items and do simple calculations). The definition of mild cognitive impairment is evolving; mild cognitive impairment is now sometimes defined as impairment in memory and/or other cognitive functions that is not severe enough to affect daily function. Up to 50% of patients with mild cognitive impairment develop dementia within 3 years.

Patients with dementia Dementia Dementia is chronic, global, usually irreversible deterioration of cognition. Diagnosis is clinical; laboratory and imaging tests are usually used to identify treatable causes. Treatment is... read more have memory loss plus evidence of cognitive and behavioral dysfunction. For example, they may have difficulty with finding words and/or naming objects (aphasia), doing previously learned motor activities (apraxia), or planning and organizing everyday tasks, such as meals, shopping, and bill paying (impaired executive function). Their personality may change; for example, they may become uncharacteristically irritable, anxious, agitated, and/or inflexible.

Depression Depressive Disorders Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness severe enough or persistent enough to interfere with function and often by decreased interest or pleasure in activities. Exact cause is unknown... read more is common among patients with dementia. However, depression itself can cause memory loss that simulates dementia (pseudodementia). Such patients usually have other features of depression.

Delirium Delirium Delirium is an acute, transient, usually reversible, fluctuating disturbance in attention, cognition, and consciousness level. Causes include almost any disorder or drug. Diagnosis is clinical... read more is an acute confusional state, which may be caused by a severe infection, a drug (adverse effect), or drug withdrawal. Patients with delirium have impaired memory, but the main reason they present is usually severe, fluctuating global changes in mental status (primarily in attention) and cognitive dysfunction, not memory loss.


Less common causes of memory loss that can be reversed with treatment include the following:

Other disorders are only partially reversible. They include

Evaluation of Memory Loss

The highest priority when evaluating memory loss is

  • To identify delirium and other reversible causes, which require rapid treatment

The evaluation then focuses on distinguishing the few cases of mild cognitive impairment and early dementia from the greater number with age-associated memory impairment or simply normal forgetfulness.


History should, when possible, be taken from the patient and family members separately. Cognitively impaired patients may not be able to provide a detailed, accurate history, and family members may not feel free to give a candid history with the patient listening.

History of present illness should include a description of the specific types of memory loss (eg, forgetting words or names, getting lost) and their onset, severity, and progression. The clinician should determine how much symptoms affect day-to-day function at work and at home. Important associated findings involve changes in language use, eating, sleeping, and mood.

Review of systems should identify neurologic symptoms and other factors that may suggest a specific type of dementia, such as the following:

Past medical history should include known disorders and complete prescription and over-the-counter drug use history.

Family and social histories should include the patient's baseline levels of intelligence, education, employment, and social functioning. Previous and current substance abuse is noted. Family history of dementia or early mild cognitive impairment is queried. Social history should also include unusual dietary habits.

Physical examination

Mental status testing assesses the following by asking the patient to do certain tasks:

  • Orientation (give their name, the date, and their location)

  • Attention and concentration (eg, repeat a list of words, do simple calculations, spell "world" backwards)

  • Short-term memory (eg, repeat a list of 3 or 4 items after 5, 10, and 30 minutes)

  • Long-term memory (eg, answer questions about the distant past)

  • Language (eg, name common objects)

  • Praxis and executive function (eg, follow a multiple-stage command)

  • Constructional praxis (eg, copy a design or draw a clock face)

Red flags

The following findings are of particular concern:

  • Impaired daily function

  • Loss of attention or altered level of consciousness

  • Symptoms of depression (eg, loss of appetite, psychomotor slowing, suicidal ideation)

Interpretation of findings

Presence of actual memory loss and impairment of daily function and other cognitive functions help differentiate age-related memory changes, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia.

Mood disturbance is present in patients with depression but is also common in patients with dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Thus, differentiating depression from dementia can be difficult until memory loss becomes more severe or unless other neurologic deficits (eg, aphasia, agnosia, apraxia) are evident.

Inattention helps differentiate delirium from early dementia. In most patients with delirium, memory loss is not the presenting symptom. Nonetheless, delirium must be excluded before a diagnosis of dementia is made.

One particularly helpful clue is how the patient came to medical attention. If the patient initiates the medical evaluation because of worries about becoming forgetful, age-associated memory impairment is the likely cause. If a family member initiates a medical evaluation for a patient who is less worried about memory loss than the family is, dementia is much more likely than when the patient initiates the evaluation.


Diagnosis of memory loss is primarily clinical. However, any brief mental status examination Examination of Mental Status Examination of Mental Status is affected by the patient's intelligence and educational level and has limited accuracy. For example, patients with high educational levels can score falsely high, and those with low levels can score falsely low.

If the diagnosis is unclear, more accurate, formal neuropsychologic testing can be done; results have higher diagnostic accuracy.

If a drug is the suspected cause, the drug can be stopped or another drug substituted as a diagnostic trial.

Treating apparently depressed patients may facilitate differentiation between depression and mild cognitive impairment.

If patients have neurologic abnormalities (eg, weakness, altered gait, involuntary movements), MRI or, if MRI is unavailable, CT is required.

For most patients, serum vitamin B12 measurement and thyroid functions tests are needed to exclude vitamin B12 deficiency and thyroid disorders, which are reversible causes of impaired memory.

If patients have delirium or dementia, further testing should be done to determine the cause.

Treatment of Memory Loss

Patients with age-associated memory impairment should be reassured. Some generally healthful measures are often recommended to help maintain function and possibly decrease the risk of dementia.

Patients with memory loss and signs of depression should be treated with nonanticholinergic antidepressants, preferably selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Memory loss tends to resolve as depression does.

Rarely, dementia Treatment Alzheimer disease causes progressive cognitive deterioration and is characterized by beta-amyloid deposits and neurofibrillary tangles in the cerebral cortex and subcortical gray matter. Diagnosis... read more is reversible with a specific treatment (eg, supplementary vitamin B12, thyroid hormone replacement, shunting for normal-pressure hydrocephalus).

Other patients with memory loss are treated supportively.

General measures

The following can be recommended for patients who are worried about memory loss:

  • Regular exercise

  • Consumption of a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables

  • Sufficient sleep

  • Not smoking

  • Use of alcohol only in moderation

  • Participation in social and intellectually stimulating activities

  • Regular physical examinations

  • Stress management

  • Prevention of head injury

These measures, with control of blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and plasma glucose levels, also tend to reduce risk of cardiovascular disorders. Some evidence suggests that these measures may reduce risk of dementia, but this effect has not been proved.

Some experts recommend

  • Learning new things (eg, a new language, a new musical instrument)

  • Doing mental exercises (eg, memorizing lists; doing word puzzles; playing chess, bridge, or other games that use strategy)

  • Reading

  • Working on the computer

  • Doing crafts (eg, knitting, quilting)

These activities may help maintain or improve cognitive function, possibly because they strengthen neuronal connections and promote new connections.

Patient safety

Occupational and physical therapists can evaluate the home of impaired patients for safety with the goal of preventing falls and other accidents. Protective measures (eg, hiding knives, unplugging the stove, removing the car, confiscating car keys) may be required. Some states require physicians to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles of patients with dementia. If patients wander, signal monitoring systems can be installed, or patients can be registered in the Safe Return program. Information is available from the Alzheimer's Association (Safe Return program).

Ultimately, assistance (eg, housekeepers, home health aides) or a change of environment (eg, living facility without stairs, assisted-living facility, skilled nursing facility) may be indicated.

Environmental measures

Patients with dementia usually function best in familiar surroundings, with frequent reinforcement of orientation (including large calendars and clocks), a bright, cheerful environment, and a regular routine. The room should contain sensory stimuli (eg, radio, television, night-light).

In institutions, staff members can wear large name tags and repeatedly introduce themselves. Changes in surroundings, routines, or people should be explained to patients precisely and simply, omitting nonessential procedures.

Frequent visits by staff members and familiar people encourage patients to remain social. Activities can help; they should be enjoyable and provide some stimulation but not involve too many choices or challenges. Exercises to improve balance and maintain cardiovascular tone can also help reduce restlessness, improve sleep, and manage behavior. Occupational therapy and music therapy help maintain fine motor control and provide nonverbal stimulation. Group therapy (eg, reminiscence therapy, socialization activities) may help maintain conversational and interpersonal skills.


Eliminating or limiting drugs with central nervous system (CNS) activity often improves function. Sedating and anticholinergic drugs, which tend to worsen dementia, should be avoided.

The cholinesterase inhibitors donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine are modestly effective in improving cognitive function in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer disease or dementia with Lewy bodies and may be useful in other forms of dementia. Efficacy wanes over time.

Memantine, an NMDA (N-methyl-d-aspartate) antagonist, can be used in moderate to severe dementia.

Donepezil may provide temporary improvement in memory for patients with mild cognitive impairment, but the benefit appears to be modest. No other drug is recommended to enhance cognition or memory in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

Aducanumab, a recently approved monoclonal antibody drug, reduces beta-amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brain in patients with Alzheimer disease Alzheimer Disease Alzheimer disease causes progressive cognitive deterioration and is characterized by beta-amyloid deposits and neurofibrillary tangles in the cerebral cortex and subcortical gray matter. Diagnosis... read more . However, the accumulated data have not convinced many experts that aducanumab prevents, reduces the symptoms of, and/or slows the progression of Alzheimer disease. Aducanumab is currently available to treat Alzheimer disease but should be limited to patients with mild symptoms.


Geriatric Essentials: Memory Loss

Mild cognitive impairment is common with aging. Prevalence is between 14% and 18% after age 70.

Dementia is one of the most common causes of institutionalization, morbidity, and mortality among older people. Aging itself accounts for most of the risk of dementia. Prevalence of dementia is

  • About 1% at age 60 to 64

  • 3% at age 65 to 74

  • 30 to 50% at age > 85

  • 60 to 80% among older nursing home residents

Key Points

  • Memory loss and dementia are common in older people and are common sources of worry for them.

  • Age-associated memory impairment is common, causing slowing, but not deterioration, of memory and cognition.

  • Diagnose primarily based on clinical criteria, particularly mood, attention, presence of true memory loss, and effect on daily function.

  • Promptly exclude possible reversible causes of dementia (certain types of stroke, depression, seizures, head trauma, brain infections, hypothyroidism, HIV infection, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, brain tumors, vitamin B12 deficiency, overuse of certain drugs including alcohol).

  • A complete drug history is critical because sedating and anticholinergic drugs can cause memory loss that can be reversed by stopping the drug.

  • If patients have neurologic abnormalities (eg, weakness, altered gait, involuntary movements), do MRI or CT.

  • Self-reported memory loss is usually not due to dementia.

  • Delirium must be ruled out before diagnosing dementia.

More Information

  • Alzheimer's Association: This web site has information about dementia in general and Alzheimer disease (such as statistics, causes, risk factors, early symptoms and signs, options for care, and daily care of someone with Alzheimer disease). It also includes tips to improve brain health and links to support groups and local resources.

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