Health A to Z
Memory loss, also called amnesia, happens when a person loses the ability to remember information and events they would normally be able to recall.
It could be something that happened seconds or minutes ago, or a memorable event that occurred in the past. The loss of memory may have started suddenly, or it may have been getting worse over the last year or so.
It's normal to become a bit forgetful as you get older. However, memory loss could be a symptom of something more serious and should be checked by a GP.
Memory loss can be distressing for the person affected, and their family. Relatives may fear the worst and assume it's caused by dementia, but this often isn't the case.
The following information will tell you:
See your GP if you're worried because you or someone you care for has lost their memory. They'll do an initial assessment and ask questions about symptoms, family history and lifestyle. They may also arrange a blood test.
Memory loss has a wide range of possible causes, depending on the type of memory loss.
Doctors classify memories as either:
If your GP thinks you or your relative needs an assessment for dementia, or that there may be another more serious underlying condition, such as brain damage, they'll refer you to a specialist.
If you're reading this because you think your memory problems may be a sign of dementia, rest assured that they probably aren't.
Your memory loss is more likely to be caused by something much more common and treatable, such as depression.
A person with dementia won't usually be aware of their memory loss or may deny it.
You may be worried that someone you care for has dementia. If your instincts are correct, their denial or lack of awareness of their memory loss can make it difficult to convince them to see a GP.
This fact sheet includes information about how to persuade your relative to see a doctor (PDF, 848kb).
As a general guide:
Read more about the symptoms of dementia.
GPs often find that people who see them about memory loss are most likely to have:
Their memory loss is a result of poor concentration and not noticing things in the first place because of a lack of interest. Sleeping problems often make the memory loss worse.
Your GP may suggest trying antidepressants. If you have depression or anxiety, your memory problems should get better as the depression or anxiety improves.
An elderly person with memory loss is likely to have depression if they also experience changes in behaviour, such as hoarding or being bad tempered.
Other common causes of memory loss are:
These will cause sudden memory loss, where you either forget events that happened before the trauma (retrograde amnesia), or you forget everything that happened after the trauma (anterograde amnesia).
Less commonly, memory loss can be caused by:
Click on the links above for more information about these conditions.