- Memory loss is linked with many conditions, including dementia.
- Major changes in your memory are not normal at any age.
- You should see your doctor if your memory problems are affecting your daily life.
- The treatment for memory loss will depend on what’s causing it.
What is memory loss?
If you are getting forgetful or confused, you might be worried it’s dementia.
Everyone forgets things from time to time, but memory loss (amnesia) is linked with many conditions, including dementia.
Some memory loss can happen as a part of normal ageing. Memory change with healthy ageing doesn't interfere with your everyday life. But everyone is different and the effect of getting older on memory will be different for everyone.
However, major changes in your memory are not normal at any age.
What causes memory loss?
There are many causes of memory loss, such as:
- depression, stress and anxiety
- traumatic brain injuries (concussion)
- insomnia (sleeping problems)
- medicines or alcohol
- mild cognitive impairment
Alcohol and memory loss
Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD — or alcohol-related brain injury) is a brain condition. It’s caused by regularly drinking more alcohol than the recommended limit over many years. People who get alcohol-related brain damage are generally aged between about 40 and 50 years.
Alcohol can damage your brain in the following ways:
Alcohol-related brain damage is not the same as short term memory loss due to binge drinking.
Memory loss that’s related to dementia becomes worse over time. It may affect your ability to work. It may mean that you forget the way home. It can eventually lead to forgetting how to do everyday things like getting dressed or having a shower.
Watch the video below and learn how you can start a conversation with someone who’s showing signs of memory loss.
Depression is often thought about in relation to feelings of hopelessness, low mood and tiredness. However, memory problems are a common symptom.
Up to 6 in 10 people with depression may have memory problems. The severity of the memory problems related to depression differs from person to person.
Traumatic brain injuries
Traumatic brain injury is defined as injury to your brain caused by an external force. This could be by:
- a road accident
- a fall
- being hit by an object or a person
Concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury.
In the past, traumatic brain injury was seen as a one-off event. However, it’s now clear that multiple concussions can cause progressive neurodegeneration (a gradual loss of brain cells).
It’s common for traumatic brain injury to cause:
- memory loss
- processing speed problems — how quickly your brain receives, understands and responds to information
- executive function issues — this makes it hard to manage your own thoughts, emotions and actions
Medicines can sometimes cause memory problems. Epilepsy medicines are one type of medication that are known to cause this.
Memory problems are more likely to happen if you’re taking:
- a high dose of medicine
- more than one medicine
Memory problems are likely to be more noticeable when you start taking a new medicine.
If you are concerned about the side effects of any medicines, speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
Mild cognitive impairment
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) occurs when your memory loss is more than you would expect for someone of your age.
Some people with mild cognitive impairment go to on develop dementia, but others don’t. People with mild cognitive impairment are 3 to 5 times more likely to develop dementia. But many people with mild cognitive impairment remain the same or even improve.
What are the symptoms of memory loss?
Because of our awareness of dementia, you may be very sensitive to changes in your memory. You may notice that you’re:
- forgetting people
- forgetting places you used to know
- having difficulties finding words
- being vague in everyday conversations
Dementia Australia has a simple Worried About Your Memory Checklist. You may find it helpful to fill in this checklist and discuss the results with your doctor. The tool is not designed to diagnose dementia.
When should I see my doctor?
You should see your doctor if your memory problems are affecting your daily life. It may be a relative or friend who notices your memory problems.
It’s best to get it checked early. This is because if you do need treatment, it often works better when started early.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
How is memory loss diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. They might also:
- get you to do a memory test — such as the Mini-Mental State Examination
- organise blood tests — to check for infection or vitamin deficiencies
- organise scans of your brain
- ask you to come with a friend or relative so they can provide extra information
What should I take to my appointment?
It’s a good idea to take:
- a list of your concerns — how long you have had problems and whether they have become worse
- a list of the medicines that you take — including vitamins and supplements
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
How is memory loss treated?
The treatment you get for memory loss will depend on its cause.
There are many products that claim to improve your memory and prevent dementia, such as supplements and brain training apps. These may be:
- a waste of money
- interfere with other medicines that you take
It’s best to check first with your doctor before buying any of these products.
Can memory loss be prevented?
Depending on the cause of memory loss, it may not be possible to prevent it. However, there are things you can do to keep your brain and body healthy.
You can help keep you brain healthy by:
- exercising your brain — do activities like reading, puzzles or craft
- taking part in social activities — catch up with friends or join a group such as a book or social club
Look after your health by:
- eating a healthy diet
- getting regular exercise
- being a healthy weight
- adopting healthy sleep patterns
- having your hearing tested
- not smoking
- not drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol
You can also reduce the risk of developing dementia by looking after your brain health.
Resources and support
The Worried About Your Memory checklist is available in other community languages on the Dementia Australia website.
Visit the Dementia Australia website to find out more, or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 for information and support.
You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2023