What is Memory Loss?
According to the National Institutes of Health, memory loss (or amnesia) is unusual forgetfulness. This forgetfulness may lead to the inability to remember new events, events that have taken place years ago or possibly both. Amnesia may come on suddenly or be a gradual process. For some, amnesia may be temporary. For others, the effects of amnesia can be long-term and permanent.
Causes of Memory Loss
Memory loss can have a variety of causes. There are multiple portions of your brain that are responsible for your ability to create and retrieve memories. Damage or malfunction of these portions of your brain can lead to memory problems.
Some of the most common causes of memory loss include:
- Alcohol or ilicit drug intoxication.
- A traumatic event that causes oxygen to not flow to your brain properly (which can include complications from anesthesia, your heart stopping beating or you not breathing for longer than a few minutes.
- Brain tumors.
- Brain infections (which can include HIV/AIDS, syphilis or Lyme Disease).
- Side effects of cancer treatments (including a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy or brain radiation).
- Prescription medications.
- Seizure disorders.
- Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions.
- Dissociative disorder (the inability to remember traumatic events).
- The use of barbiturate or benzodiazepine drugs.
- Electroconvulsive therapy.
- Head injuries.
- Heart bypass surgery.
- Neurodegenerative disorders (including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease).
- Long-term alcohol abuse.
- Permanent brain damage.
- Transient global amnesia.
- Transient ischemic attack.
10 Ways to Help Improve Your Memory
1. Drink in Moderation. While you may think drinking has a tendency to mess with your memory, drinking and improving your memory have an interesting relationship. Drinking too much will cause your memory to become fuzzy and leaving you second-guessing what you may have done or did not do the night before. This is evident in DUI testing. A DUI test shows that alcohol can have an affect on your brain’s ability to perform even the simplest of tasks including counting backwards from 10 or saying the ABC’s (all tasks we learn to complete at a very young age and tend not to forget). However, having one drink here and there may prove to increase your cognitive abilities. A French study found that individuals who drink in moderation (one drink per day) are more likely to do better on memory and cognitive tests that those who do not drink at all or those who drink heavily. Another French study also indicates that individuals over the age of 65 (who consume up to two glasses of wine per day) were 45 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than older adults who do not drink alcohol at all.
2. It could be Depression. This can often be mistaken for memory problems. One of the main symptoms of depression is very similar to one of the main symptoms of memory loss — the inability to concentrate. If you are having trouble concentrating at school, at work or during daily tasks, it may seem as if you are unable to remember things. Depression can cause an increase of cortisol in your bloodstream. Increased levels of cortisol in your blood stream can lead to elevated amounts of cortisol in your brain, which can lead to symptoms of memory loss. Due to brain imaging studies (including MRIs and CT scans) doctors have been better able to study how levels of cortisol effect the brain — including the hippocampus. One study conducted on cortisol in the brain indicated that 12 to 15 percent of individuals with depression has suffered loss of the use of their hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for short-term memory activities of the brain. Untreated depression can make it difficult for your brain to retain any new information — this can make work or school very difficult.
3. Participate in exercise. A lack of physical activity may lead to forgetfulness and problems with your memory. If you are having trouble remembering things at work or having difficulty concentrating, get up and take a quick walk. Exercise is good for the entire body — including your brain. Taking care of your body may also be able to help increase the functionality of your brain. Obesity (or being overweight) is a contributing factor to may diseases and conditions of the body that can have an immediate or eventual effect on your brain — including the development of Alzheimer’s disease or having a stroke. Living a sedentary live style can lead to a build-up of plaque in your arteries and blood vessel walls. This makes it more difficult for blood to be pumped to your brain. Clogged arteries can lead to more than just a heart attack. Your brain needs regular exercise to maintain a constant flow of oxygen and nutrients. When your brain is not receiving enough nutrients or oxygen, its ability to function properly is compromised. Numerous studies show that individuals who participate in regular exercise are more likely to do well on cognitive performance testing. What is regular exercise? The National Academy of Sports Medicine indicates that healthy adults should participate in 30 minutes of exercise, five days per week. Children (under the age of 18) should participate in 60 minutes of exercise daily.
4. Use visualization and association techniques to help improve your memory. If you have trouble remembering, try to remember this one fact: a picture is worth a thousand words. To best understand this technique, think about reading a story book when you were a child. Remember trying to visualize the characters? Or think about playing make believe when you were a child. Remember using your imagination to pretend you were at the beach or in a castle? You can use this same technique to help remember where you place things. For instance, set your glasses down in the rest room. Imagine you are cleaning them. Hours from now when you cannot find your glasses, remember that you were in the bathroom cleaning them. You ca also opt to use visualization techniques by grouping items together. For instance, try this technique if you have trouble remembering all of your items for work, create an image in your head that helps you link them together. Say you need your lunch, a laptop, your glasses and your ID badge. Remember that you need your ID badge to get into your office to use your computer. You cannot see if your screen without your glasses. If you cannot get your work done, you won’t have time for lunch. This may sound bizarre, but it can help!
5. Pay close attention to what is going on around you. Pay close attention to what others have to say during meetings or phone calls. Unlike an e-mail, you cannot refer to a phone call or meeting at a later date. If you need to carry post-it notes around with you, write key words or phrases that are likely to help you remember an important meeting or phone call later. Avoid day dreaming during important events or getting side-tracked. If a phone call or meeting is important, try to “forget” about your other worries until later so that you can devote your full attention to the task at hand.
6. Repeat what you are told. This works especially well if you are trying to remember names. When you are introduced to a new individual, try responding with “It is nice to meet you [insert the persons name here]. Numerous studies show that if you repeat an individual’s name back after first learning it, you are much more likely to remember it. To remember names, you can also try visualization and association techniques. Take note of where you met the person or features — such as beautiful blue eyes or long hair. By associating a particular place or feature with a person, you are more likely to remember their name.
7. Remember important digits by chunking numbers together. This works well for phone numbers, PIN numbers, social security numbers and license plat numbers. Try chunking all numbers just like you read off a phone number in sets of three to four numbers instead of a long 10-digit number.
8. Get more sleep. When you are able to devote eight hours each night to sleep, you will be able to think, concentrate and remember more the next day. You will be better able to concentrate on the tasks at hand rather than focusing on being tired, when you should get a cup of coffee or going home and snuggling up in your bed.
9. Use your environment to remember bits of information. This works similarly to tying a string around your finger without having to actual tie a piece of string around your finger. If you remember something in the middle of the night. Look at your alarm clock or nightstand and try to associate what you are remembering with that item, so that when you wake up in the morning you will associate your alarm clock or nightstand with what you thought of in the middle of the night. This beats getting up in the middle of the night to complete the task you remembered while relaxing in bed.
10. Practice makes perfect. You cannot improve your memory if you do not work on it. If you need to, make small games to help improve your memory. Break out a child’s matching game (card game). You can also opt to read an article in the paper and try to remember as many names and places in the article as possible. Spend five minutes completing another task and then try to write down as many names and places in the article as possible..that you remembered.