Forgetfulness

Forgetfulness is a normal part of life, and it’s common to grow more forgetful as you age. Still, it can be scary and make you concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive neurological condition associated with memory loss.

Rest assured that most people get more forgetful over time and do not have Alzheimer’s. Many other conditions can cause forgetfulness as well.

This article will explore the symptoms and causes of forgetfulness and how it's diagnosed and treated. 

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Symptoms of Forgetfulness

Problems with memory, thinking, or attention can appear as forgetfulness. Signs that you may have a diagnosable problem include:

  • Trouble remembering details like dates or names
  • Being disoriented (not knowing where you are)
  • Feeling like your brain is “foggy”
  • Getting easily confused
  • Processing new information slowly
  • Difficulty understanding things
  • Inability to make decisions or think things through
  • Difficulties with normally simple tasks, such as coming up with a common word
  • Reduced ability to multitask

Anyone can experience these things on occasion. It’s when they start happening more often or become more severe that you need to take notice.

Forgetfulness can involve short-term memory and/or long-term memory loss, as follows:

  • Short-term memory loss: This includes lapses in recent information, such as instructions for a simple task (like a recipe) or why you walked into a room, that can last for a few seconds to a few days.
  • Long-term memory loss: This memory loss includes lapses in childhood memories and practiced procedures (e.g., driving a car, brushing your teeth) and may last for decades.

Causes of Forgetfulness

Forgetfulness has several potential causes, including: 

  • Aging
  • Lifestyle factors
  • Medical conditions
  • Medications

How Does Aging Increase Forgetfulness?

Your brain undergoes physical changes as you get older. Some of these changes can impact your memory, including: 

  • Deterioration of the hippocampus (a brain region involved in forming and retrieving memories)
  • Declining hormones and proteins that protect, repair, and stimulate the growth of brain cells
  • Decreased blood flow to the brain, which can cause cognitive and memory impairments
  • Loss of gray matter (the tissue of the brain)

These changes can impact your cognitive function in many ways, including causing forgetfulness. Normal age-related forgetfulness involves things like: 

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left common objects (phone, keys, glasses, etc.)
  • Forgetting someone’s name or calling them by someone else’s name
  • Occasionally forgetting appointments
  • Entering a room and forgetting why you went in there
  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Forgetting what you just read or heard someone say
  • The feeling of having information “on the tip of your tongue” but being unable to retrieve it
  • Taking longer to learn new things

Cognitive changes that don’t have a major impact on your ability to function are common.

What Lifestyle Factors Can Cause Forgetfulness?

Several aspects of your life can affect your cognitive health and forgetfulness. These include:

  • Inadequate sleep: Studies suggest sleeping for an average of seven hours a day may help maintain a healthy memory later in life.
  • Heavy alcohol use: Alcohol can shrink the hippocampus, which is critical to memory, and affect both short-term and long-term memory.
  • Stress: Psychological stress can interfere with forming new memories and recalling older ones.
  • Poor diet: Studies suggest diets high in cholesterol and fat may cause Alzheimer’s-like damage to the brain. A Mediterranean diet, which includes many servings of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and extra-virgin olive oil, has been linked to lower rates of dementia.
  • Grief: Processing traumatic events changes the balance of brain function in ways that impair memory, decision-making, attention, and information processing.

While you may not be able to eliminate grief and stress from your life, other lifestyle factors are changeable.

What Medical Conditions Can Cause Forgetfulness?

A wide range of medical conditions can lead to forgetfulness and other cognitive changes. These include both physical and mental health disorders.

These degenerative neurological disorders are linked to forgetfulness and dementia: 

  • Alzheimer’s disease: The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s targets brain areas that control thought, memory, and language.
  • Parkinson’s disease: Parkinson’s is a neurological movement disorder that may eventually progress to include forgetfulness and dementia.
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS): ALS affects nerve cells. It first causes muscle and movement symptoms, then progresses to forgetfulness, other cognitive problems, and sometimes dementia.

Other neurological conditions with forgetfulness as a symptom include:

  • Brain tumors: Tumors may cause forgetfulness and problems with thinking, reasoning, concentration, and language skills.
  • Blood clots in the brain: Blood clots block the flow of blood to brain tissue, which can lead to cognitive impairments known as vascular dementia.
  • Brain infections: Infections such as Lyme disease, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and syphilis can damage the brain, causing forgetfulness and especially short-term memory loss.
  • Fibromyalgia: This neurological pain condition involves “fibro fog”—a set of cognitive symptoms that include forgetfulness and word-finding difficulties.
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS): Similar to fibromyalgia, ME/CFS causes cognitive dysfunction featuring forgetfulness. It may become worse after physical exertion.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder): The brains of people with this condition have deficits in how they store and retrieve memories, resulting in forgetfulness.
  • Concussion/head trauma: Blows to the head often cause forgetfulness, often involving an inability to remember the events surrounding the injury.
  • Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA): Brain damage from strokes or TIAs (ministrokes) can cause forgetfulness, especially short-term memory loss.

Some medical conditions linked to forgetfulness are:

  • Some autoimmune diseases: Lupus and other autoimmune diseases can cause forgetfulness and other cognitive problems.
  • Hypothyroidism: Low thyroid activity alters energy metabolism in the brain, resulting in cognitive dysfunction, including forgetfulness.
  • Some kidney disorders: Kidney disease and dementia both involve small blood cell abnormalities, which may explain why kidney disorders sometimes cause forgetfulness and dementia.
  • Liver disorders: Liver disease can lead to a condition called hepatic encephalopathy (HE), which causes memory loss and other cognitive problems.
  • Pregnancy: Sometimes called pregnancy brain, cognitive problems, including memory deficits, are common during pregnancy.

Mental health conditions can cause forgetfulness as well. These are generally believed to be because of physical changes in the brain that interfere with concentration and short-term memory.

Forgetfulness is common in:

What Medications Can Cause Forgetfulness?

Some prescription medications can cause forgetfulness, especially those that affect brain function or chemistry. Medications that may lead to forgetfulness include:

  • Antidepressants: Paxil (paroxetine), Elavil (amitriptyline), Norpramin (desipramine), Aventyl/Pamelor (nortriptyline)
  • H2 blocker/antacid: Tagamet (cimetidine)
  • Anticholinergics/antispasmodics: Ditropan (oxybutynin), Detrol/Detrusitol (tolterodine) 
  • Cold and allergy drugs: Dimetapp (brompheniramine), Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine), Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • Chemotherapy drugs: Cyclophosphamide, fluorouracil, methotrexate

How to Treat Forgetfulness

The right treatment for your forgetfulness depends on what’s causing it. Talk to your healthcare provider about the right approach for you. This may involve:

  • Improving your diet and overall fitness
  • Lowering or better managing stress
  • Improving sleep hygiene and/or prescribing sleep aids
  • Treating previously undiagnosed conditions
  • More aggressively treating conditions that still cause cognitive problems
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help with recovery from head trauma
  • Changing medications that cause memory problems
  • Taking nutritional supplements that boost brain health, such as omega-3 fatty acids

To keep your brain healthy and functioning well, you can also try:

  • Maintaining social connections
  • Taking classes or learning new skills
  • Watching documentaries
  • Reading books or articles about new topics
  • Visiting new places to stimulate your senses
  • Eating unfamiliar foods
  • Focusing on heart health so your brain gets a steady supply of blood and oxygen

Risk Factors for Forgetfulness

Risk factors for forgetfulness and memory problems include:

  • Family history of these problems
  • Lower education level
  • Aging
  • History of head injury
  • Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
  • Untreated chronic medical conditions
  • Vision or hearing impairment
  • High levels of psychological stress

If you have some risk factors, you may want to pay special attention to forgetfulness and other cognitive symptoms.

Can Tests Diagnose the Cause of Forgetfulness?

Your healthcare provider has several tools for diagnosing the cause of your forgetfulness. These include:

They may also want to talk to close family members and friends about things they’ve noticed that you may be unaware of.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should see a healthcare provider for forgetfulness if it interferes with daily tasks and routines. In older people, if it doesn’t interfere, it’s considered normal aging.

Reach out to your healthcare provider for an appointment if:

  • You’re too young for age-related forgetfulness but notice it’s becoming a problem.
  • You have other symptoms that suggest a medical condition.
  • Your forgetfulness is concerning you or someone close to you.

Summary

Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. However, it can also be caused by lifestyle factors, medical conditions (not just Alzheimer’s), and certain medications.

Treatment for memory problems depends on what is causing them. It may include medications or lifestyle changes.

Your healthcare provider may use an array of tests to pinpoint the cause of your cognitive changes.

A Word From Verywell

Forgetfulness can be frustrating, embarrassing, and frightening. However, mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. If you’re concerned, see your healthcare provider and ask about testing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the main cause of forgetfulness?

    While forgetfulness has many causes, a major one is lack of sleep. Improving your sleep habits may help you be less forgetful.

  • When should I worry about forgetfulness?

    If you’re forgetting things that you used to easily remember—like your street address or someone’s name—you should see your healthcare provider.

    If you occasionally forget where you put your keys or why you walked into a room, that is not typically a cause for concern.

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By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.