It is normal to forget things sometimes, such as the name of someone you just met. However, if you or someone you know are struggling to remember things like close family members' names, that's different. This page describes amnesia, the causes of it and where to get help.
What is amnesia?
Amnesia is loss of memory. People with amnesia can struggle to form new memories or remember recent events or experiences. People who have amnesia might also be confused and have trouble learning anything new.
But most people with amnesia still remember who they are, and can often remember events from their childhood.
Amnesia is not a medical condition on its own, but a description of an experience. It is often a symptom of another condition. It is usually temporary, but can be permanent in some situations.
What causes amnesia?
There is a long list of conditions that can cause amnesia. It can be caused by damage to the parts of the brain that are important for memory. This can be due to conditions such as:
- concussion or head injury
- a stroke
- brain inflammation due to an infection
- tumours in the area of the brain that control memory
Amnesia can also be caused by issues that affect the whole brain, such as:
- psychological conditions, such as anxiety or depression
- a type of epilepsy (transient epileptic amnesia)
- alcohol or drug use
- some medications, such as sedatives
- after losing the supply of oxygen to the brain, such as with a heart attack or heart surgery
When should I see my doctor?
If you or someone you know are struggling to remember things like close family members' names, or if you can't retain new information, it's important to see your doctor.
And if you have any memory loss at all after a head injury or a suspected concussion, you should see your doctor.
How is amnesia diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. They might also:
- perform memory tests
- take a blood test to check for infection or vitamin deficiencies
- take images of your brain to look for damage
Living with amnesia
If you have a treatable cause of amnesia, then treatment might allow you to regain your memory.
But if you have ongoing amnesia, then apart from treating whatever is causing it, you will need to developing strategies to improve your memory. This can mean:
- writing down important information using a diary, a notepad, or a smartphone
- telling family and friends about important information you need to remember
- seeing an occupational therapist or a psychologist who can help you develop strategies for remembering information
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Last reviewed: June 2021