5 Surprising Causes of Memory Loss

You can’t find your keys or you forget an appointment. For many people in middle age or older, simple acts of forgetfulness like these are scary because they raise the specter of Alzheimer’s disease.

But Alzheimer’s is not the only health issue that can lead to forgetfulness, which is often treatable if you know the cause, according to the National Institute on Aging. Memory loss can happen at any age and for a number of reasons.

“Patients might experience memory loss and describe their symptoms similarly, but a doctor can tease apart what parts of the brain are affected,” says Seth Gale, MD, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
He points out things like polypharmacy (taking several medications), significant depression, and poor sleep that can lead to memory complaints. “When you drill down and find out what is actually happening with brain function, you can reassure someone. They have the capacity to learn and store information but because of their overloaded mental resources, they are having trouble,” says Dr. Gale.

Talk with your doctor about concerns you may have about your memory, so the condition responsible for your symptoms can be addressed. Discussing your symptoms and taking various tests, possibly including an MRI, may help your doctor determine what is affecting your memory, Gale says. In some cases, one or more of the following issues could play a role.

1. Sleep Apnea

This common but treatable sleep disorder causes breathing to stop briefly and frequently throughout the night. It is linked to memory loss and dementia, according to Constantine Lyketsos, MD, director of the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine and professor and chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bayview. You might have sleep apnea if you wake up with a headache and have daytime fatigue — or if your partner complains of loud snoring.

When not treated, sleep apnea affects spatial navigational memory, found a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. This type of memory includes being able to remember directions or where you put things like your keys. The research suggests that deep sleep, also known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, plays an important role in memory.

One explanation is that for people with sleep apnea, oxygen delivery to the brain is interrupted several hundred times during the night, explains Dr. Lyketsos. “The brain is stressed, so people wake up,” he says. The injury sleep apnea causes can show up as a variety of memory loss symptoms, he adds.

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