The pipe under the sink in the kitchen was leaking. Joy placed a small bucket to collect the water and went on with the work she was doing. Sometime later she saw that the bucket was full. She picked the bucket and emptied it in the sink. Oops. Of course, she forgot for a moment that the sink was leaking.
How many times does it happen that you forget the name of the person you see daily at the bus stop, or you can’t remember where you put the car keys or parked the car? It’s not always the old souls that forget names, birthdays, numbers, and faces. Even a nine-year-old can have such ‘forgetfulness’ episodes.
Nine-year-old Vicky could not remember what he did most of the time. He left for school most mornings without his backpack and his mother rushed after him with the bag. One month into the school and he had lost his lunch box twice, his notebooks and pens almost every other day, and even managed to lose his blazer once. He did not get on the school bus returning home and most days his mother rushed to school to bring him back!
Forgetfulness, also called mild cognitive impairment, need not cause you much concern if it happens once in a while, but if you are forgettings quite often like Vicky, then it’s time to delve deeper into the cause of your forgetfulness.
Age, medical conditions, and emotional problems – all of these can contribute to forgetfulness. Most memory problems can be treated, so see your doctor if you or your loved one tend to forget stuff often. Here’s a 101 on the causes of forgetfulness.
If you are in your 50s or 60s or maybe 70s, you may suddenly feel you are losing it. You stand in front of your refrigerator and you just don’t seem to recollect what it was that you wanted to take out of it. Or, you are discussing books with your friend and you are trying very hard to remember the title of the book you were reading the day before. These are the memory changes during normal ageing and you do not have to be alarmed, but they may also be the beginning symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
We start forgetting stuff because as we age the nerve impulses that travel between cells and cell membrane in the brain slows down. This decline in cognitive ability is not abrupt and progresses imperceptibly over decades, say scientists from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It is natural and there is not much you can do to stop the progression of memory lapses other than try and socialize more and do things that help keep your memory sharp and you alert. Read more about anti-ageing pills could have an opposite effect.
2. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Forgetfulness in dementia is a bit different than the one found in normal ageing in the sense you will not be able to recall instances where memory loss was noticeable. You will have frequent word finding difficulties and your ability to converse will be noticeably impaired. And as the disease progresses, you may become more forgetful, so much so, you might lose your way home even if you are in the neighbourhood. You will know if it is Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia if the person becomes confused and unsocial and gradually loses the ability to perform daily activities. Look out for signs of mood changes or changes in behaviour, and disorientation to time and place. Read more about Alzheimer’s. Although Alzheimer’s cannot be cured, early intervention can help stop the progression of the disease.
3. Stress, anxiety and depression
Emotional problems are also one of the most common causes of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness can occur when you are highly stressed or anxious. You may get emotionally disturbed when there is a death in the family, or you have just retired and are confused, or even when there are life changes that you find hard to cope with.
Depression too can cause you to forget. Researchers found that depressed people have lower levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that among other things regulates blood flow in the cells, and consequently reduces brain cell activity. Slower brain cell activity causes lack of attention and concentration leading to forgetfulness.
These episodes of forgetfulness may be temporary though and you will be okay once the cause of your stress or anxiety goes away. But if you find that you are not improving even after a reasonable period of time has passed it is important you see a doctor. You may need counselling or medication in that case. Read more about how to recognise and deal with anxiety.
4. Drug side effects
- Anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) such as alprazolam (Xanax), Valium, and others used to treat anxiety disorders, muscle spasms, and prevent seizures can cause forgetfulness by interfering with those parts of the brain that are involved in the transfer of events from short-term to long-term memory.
- Cholesterol lowering drugs such as atorvastatin and lovastatin cause memory loss by depleting the cholesterol levels in the brain as well. Cholesterol is important because they form connections between nerve cells underlying memory and learning. Read more about cholesterol.
- Anti-seizure drugs, for example, acetazolamide, carbamazepine, and valproic acid cause forgetfulness by depressing signalling in the central nervous system.
- Tricyclic anti-depressants used to treat anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, chronic pain, smoking cessation, and certain hormone related disorders can in some people cause forgetfulness as side effect. Scientists believe these drugs block the action of serotonin and norepinephrine, the two vital chemical messengers in the brain and cause memory loss. Read more about depression.
- Opioid painkillers used for severe chronic pain as in rheumatoid arthritis, interfere with long and short term memory when used for extensive periods. Read more about the side effects and precautions you must take while using painkillers.
- Beta-blockers slow the heart rate and lower blood pressure. But they tend to block the action of epinephrine and norepinephrine as well causing memory loss as side effect. Read more about the drugs commonly used for high blood pressure and hypertension.
- Sleeping aids or Z-drugs as they are called too can cause amnesia sometimes. Suffering from insomina? Here is why you should not use sleeping pills indiscriminately.
- Incontinence drugs that act by blocking the action of acetylcholine, one of its function being prevention of involuntary contraction of muscles controlling urine flow. But in the brain they may inhibit activity in the memory and learning centres.
- Antihistamines too act in the same way as the incontinence drugs.
5. Thyroid problems
Underactive thyroids or hypothyroidism too can cause memory problems. Hypothyroidism is a condition where not enough thyroid hormone is produced. Symptoms include –
- Feeling tired
- Gaining weight
- Dry and itchy skin
- Memory problems and difficulty concentrating
- Slower heart rate
Scientists believe the thyroid hormone in itself does not cause cognitive impairment, it is actually the depression associated with hypothyroidism that causes forgetfulness. Sometimes, depression is the first indication that you may be suffering from hypothyroidism. So, if you suffer from hypothyroidism as well as depression, your doctor will prescribe thyroid replacement medication for cognitive impairment. A study published in the journal Hippocampus found that treatment with levothyroxin can reverse hypothyroidism induced depression.
6. Chronic alcoholism
Drinking too much can interfere with short-term memory even after the effects of alcohol has worn off according to Harvard scientists. They recommend sticking to two drinks a day at the most.
7. Other reasons:
- Head injury and concussion
- Kidney and liver problems
- Vitamin B12 deficiency – Along with signs of cognitive difficulties and memory loss, the deficiency causes loss of balance, numbness or tingling of extremities, jaundiced skin, fatigue, and swollen or inflamed tongue. Read more about the 12 reasons you need vitamin B12
- Stroke – Stroke affects the brain and the brain controls our emotions and behaviour. So, symptoms of stroke among others include forgetfulness, confusion, anger and depression. Read more about a stroke.
Forgetfulness is not a disease; it is not serious in most cases; but if forgetfulness is frequent and occurs with other signs and symptoms, it is wise to consult a doctor. Exercise regularly to boost development of brain cells, stay social, eat healthy, and quit smoking and drinking. Like British actor Kevin Whatley said: ‘With all the lines I have to learn for TV scripts, I don’t think I have any problems with forgetfulness – that’s brain exercise enough for me’.
You may also like to read:
- Decoded! Why we often have memory lapses
- Revealed: How marijuana causes memory loss!
- Alzeimer’s disease – it’s more common than you think
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