February 20, 2023
You walk into a room, and suddenly you can’t remember why you’re there.
You’re writing an email, and the word you need is on the tip of your tongue… but you just can’t figure it out.
Memory lapses like these can be a natural part of aging. And an occasional forgetful moment in your 30s, 40s or even 50s is rarely a sign of early-onset dementia. But if they happen enough to be noticeable, there might be something more going on.
“There are many things besides Alzheimer’s disease that cause memory changes,” says David Beversdorf, MD, a neurologist at MU Health Care. And sometimes, remedying the underlying cause can fix your memory issues.
Here’s what you need to know:
When to Be Concerned About Memory Loss
Your memory is tasked with juggling older, previously stored information with all of the new information you receive on a daily basis. As you get older, subtle changes to your body caused by aging can disrupt memory processes, affecting your ability to recall information.
But you should only be concerned if your memory lapses:
- Are noticeable to family and friends
- Happen frequently enough to interfere with daily activities
- Impair your ability to perform a task you used to perform easily
“If friends around your age say they’re experiencing similar issues and you eventually always remember the thing you forgot, your forgetfulness shouldn’t be too concerning,” Dr. Beversdorf says. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying issue contributing to the problem.”
Surprising Causes of Memory Problems
If your memory is suddenly lacking, here are a few underlying causes that may be at play:
1. Attention disorders
Adults with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) process information differently and often feel forgetful. The condition can interfere with the ability to focus and impair working memory — the skill responsible for temporarily storing and using information. Working memory helps you remember the grocery list or steps in a recipe as you move through the store or cook your dinner.
Many medications can contribute to memory loss and forgetfulness. In some cases, a quick medication adjustment can solve your memory problems. Talk to your doctor if you are having memory issues and take medication for conditions such as:
- Anxiety or depression
- Blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Parkinson’s disease
- Urinary incontinence
3. Sleep-related conditions or a lack of sleep
Recent studies find that ongoing sleep disturbances, such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea, place added stress on the brain. The result is impaired memory processing and executive function skills, which include working memory, focus and multitasking.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed sleep condition, the memory-strengthening stages of sleep begin to decline in your 30s. Combine that with the lack of sleep associated with raising young children, and your memory may struggle. “Women and men raising young children are dealing with sleep deprivation while living with the high distractibility required to maintain complex infant and toddler schedules,” Dr. Beversdorf says. “These are very real factors that impact your memory.”
4. Stress, anxiety or depression
Mental health issues place extra strain on your brain. Over time, they can change how your brain processes information — ultimately affecting focus, cognition and memory. Stress, anxiety and depression can also affect your sleep and motivation to exercise and socialize, which are all linked to a strong memory.
5. Thyroid disorders
If your thyroid gland is underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism), the symptoms can mimic the signs of dementia. Hypothyroidism is associated with forgetfulness, trouble concentrating and “brain fog.” It can cause memory lapses and difficulty with spatial memory, which helps you remember where things are located. A simple blood test can measure your thyroid levels.
6. Vitamin deficiencies
Vitamins and their nutrients go a long way to boost your memory and prevent future decline. The association between low levels of vitamin B12 and memory loss is well established. But a recent study also links cognitive function and memory with vitamin D — higher levels of the vitamin resulted in stronger memory and slower cognitive decline.
If Your Memory Loss is Concerning…
If your memory lapses seem sudden, are ongoing or meet the criteria Dr. Beversdorf outlined, reach out to your primary care provider (PCP). “Going to your PCP is a great place to start,” he says. “They understand your personal and family medical history and can perform a general health check to pinpoint possible causes of your memory problems.” Your doctor may also refer you to a neurologist for further evaluation.
Tips for Improving Your Memory (and Preventing Memory Loss)
Your memory may not be causing you trouble now, but if you take the proper steps, you may prevent memory issues from cropping up later.
Dr. Beversdorf recommends:
- Eating a Mediterranean diet: A recent study found that sticking primarily to a Mediterranean diet (plant-based foods and healthy fats) is associated with better cognitive performance and decreased memory decline among middle-aged and older adults.
- Having a positive outlook: Research shows that people who are generally cheerful and have a positive attitude are less likely to experience memory decline later in life.
- Swapping TV for mental, physical and social activities: These three types of activity are vital to your memory, so engage all of them regularly. Instead of binge-watching the newest Netflix craze, meet a friend, meditate, exercise or learn a new skill. Watching too much television, especially in midlife, is associated with worse memory later in life.
- Knowing your family history: Understanding your genetic link to dementia, if there is one, can help you and your doctor take preventive measures.
- Staying heart healthy: Make good lifestyle choices regarding diet and exercise because a healthy heart lowers the risk for dementia.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Want to speak with a primary care provider? Find one today.