Table of Contents:
- How does your memory work, and what is memory loss?
- So how do memories come into existence?
- Different causes of memory loss
- What to do about memory loss
- When to seek help for memory loss
Memory is one of the most complex parts of our brain’s overall function. We can remember our favorite birthday present from our 10th birthday, but can’t remember who was in attendance at that party, or what games were played. Or when you walk into your old high school decades later, and the smells of the hallways begin to trigger snippets from those days to flood your brain. Not only does your brain have trouble remembering the details of the past, but it also has trouble distinguishing what are true and what are false memories. False memories are recollections that seem real but are fabricated in your mind. Similar to thinking you closed the garage door, but you didn’t.
But what about memory loss? Is it similar to erasing files off of a computer? Why does this happen, and how normal is it to forget? What’s the cause of this, and what can be done about it?
After reading this article, you will understand aspects of memory that most people do not. You will also be able to differentiate memory loss that requires professional help from occasional forgetfulness that is reversible and preventable.
How does your memory work, and what is memory loss?
We often compare memories and the brain to a high-powered computer where data is stored and retrieved. However, that is not the most accurate portrayal of how the brain works. It is much more complex than that.
You have upwards of 86 billion neurons scattered throughout the brain, consuming about 20% of the total body energy. In the brain, embedded deep inside the temporal lobe (near the ears) is a region known as the hippocampus, which is fundamental for memory function. Unlike computers, our memories aren’t coded in 1’s and 0’s. Instead, they are first formed in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex as short-term memories. If these memories are meant for long-term storage, they will then be indexed as episodic memories (autobiographical memories) in the hippocampus for later use.
So how does memory come into existence?
Let’s say that neuron 1 receives a painful impulse in your hand after touching a hot stove. Neuron 1 sends a rapid impulse to neuron 2, which quickly removes your hand from danger. Next, neuron 3 creates a stress response against the pain you experienced. When you’re free from danger, neuron 3 connects with all sensory impulses to trace what was happening and what triggered the pain. Now, the image of your hand on the stovetop is associated with neuron 3, which induces a stress response that makes you cautious around stoves. In this example, no particular neuron saves the tag “dangerous” along with the picture of fire. Instead, it relies on several brain connections to remember.
Our survival as a species is dependent on this chain reaction. First, there’s the sensory impulse (hot stove), 2nd there’s an actionable response (pulling hand away), and then 3rd an emotional trigger in the center of everything. Once a connection is made using these three components, it is possible to mentally walk through them, visualize, and strengthen those memories even more. This is a sneak peek of a much more complex brain function that includes neurotransmitters and other various chemical processes (1).
But what if brain connections fail, and previously high-traffic highways turn into impassable terrain? Your brain still works, but the result will be disparate actions, thoughts, and emotions. Each one goes their own way, and the connections are weak and ambiguous. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happens in dementia and neurodegenerative disease. More than just losing storage area, brain connections get lost, and those broken highways become bridges to nowhere.
Different Causes of Memory Loss
With this in mind, how could anyone lose their brain connections and memories? Here’s a list of common causes:
Naturally, when the brain suffers an injury of any type, neurons are damaged, and many neural connections are broken. These damages cause memory loss and sometimes loss of function in several organs of the body. The severity of these effects depends on the location and extent of the brain injury.
The stress hormone cortisol can either be very good or very bad for memory. Cortisol increases your alertness levels, making you aware of what is happening and allowing for better memory consolidation. Cortisol is the hormone released by the adrenal glands when you’re facing a high-stress situation. But if stress is held for a long time, it causes changes in your hippocampus and makes you susceptible to memory loss (2). The stress hormones divert glucose (energy) from going to the hippocampus and instead send it to the surrounding muscles, a survival mechanism to make sure your body has the energy needed to perform in a high-stress situation. A lack of energy, over a long period, in this vital area of your brain can have lasting effects on memory.
Depression and grief:
The volume of the hippocampus changes in people with depression. Researchers have postulated that this is due to an impairment of neurotransmitters and brain chemistry in this brain region (3). According to these studies, these volume decreases appear to have functional significance, such as memory loss.
Anxious people have difficulty focusing, make new memories, and consolidating brain connections. Memory retrieval is also difficult with anxiety because it cues the brain’s processing to be in a state of worry and survival, shutting down other types of higher brain function (4).
Unhealthy diet and vitamin deficiency:
We are what we eat, and the body has to work with the nutrients we take in. If what we consume is insufficient in nutritional value, our bodies (and brain) will not perform near their optimal level. High-calorie diets with trans fats, sugar, and those low in vitamins are associated with cognitive decline (5).
Naturally, if we constantly live in a chaotic environment, it is very difficult to create new and organized memories. Things like forgetting where you left your car keys become a daily struggle, not because there’s something wrong with you but because your environment (and brain) is in disarray.
Chronic health problems may also cause memory impairments in the long term. For example, a circulatory problem that reduces blood circulation in the hippocampus could lead to severe memory loss. In chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), patients may also experience memory loss and confusion in the advanced stages of the disease (6).
Lack of exercise:
Exercise stimulates blood flow and improves the cardiovascular system in many ways. It also promotes chemical modifications in the brain. Thus, sedentary behavior is associated with a more rapid memory loss in susceptible patients (7).
Lack of mental stimulation:
There is no standard exercise for the brain. But in general, whatever brain function you want to develop, you need to train for it specifically. If you’re not consciously strengthening your memories and revisiting essential facts you want to remember, they will ultimately disappear. There’s an old adage that seems to apply here, which is, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Lack of sleep:
Poor sleep has a profound impact on brain function, and more specifically, on brain connectivity and memories. Studies show that deep sleep strengthens brain connections and creates new ones in response to what we experienced throughout the day. Thus, healthy sleep is fundamental for a healthy brain (8).
There are some recorded cases of drug-induced memory loss. It is not the most common outcome but usually happens to patients who already have a memory loss problem. For example, Alzheimer’s patients taking certain medications could have a higher risk of memory loss (9).
Illegal drugs and substance abuse often cause memory loss. The classic example is alcohol and how ethanol intoxication leads to waking up not knowing exactly what happened last night. Other substances are made to trigger memory loss. There is also a higher risk of cognitive problems in patients with a long history of substance abuse (10).
What to do about memory loss
If you’re experiencing memory loss and feel that it is affecting your quality of life, there is much you can do about it. Try the following recommendations:
Talk to your doctor and treat any underlying ailment:
As shown above, chronic disease could cause memory loss. There is also dementia with Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, talking to your doctor would help you rule out any underlying ailment that causes or worsens memory loss.
Improve your diet and supplementation:
Lack of vitamins from an unhealthy diet can be a cause of memory loss. You want to give your brain the right ingredients for top-notch performance, such as B vitamins and antioxidant nutrients such as vitamin C. Other high-powered supplements may be a great idea that include alpha-lipoic acid, turmeric root, and melatonin.
Improve sleep quality:
Melatonin, listed above as a high-powered supplement, can improve sleep quality and help you recover from insomnia. It is also essential to eat a light dinner and keep a bedtime routine to put your body and mind at ease before bedtime. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can be beneficial, and you can always try soothing herbal infusions such as chamomile and valerian root.
Change your environment:
Your environment is likely contributing to memory loss in one way or another. Organizing your work, keeping everything clean, and having space for yourself can make a difference. If you’re trying to learn something new, a suitable learning environment should not have distractions or loud noises. The recommended changes in your environment depend on who you are and what you need.
Coping with stress is fundamental to keep your mental health and improve your memory. Meditation and herbal infusions can be helpful, especially if you also feel anxiety. But it is also essential to schedule and organize your work, know when to delegate work, and limit the habit of multitasking. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, but you also want to keep healthy relationships at home. Studies show that even patients with Alzheimer’s disease have milder symptoms when they feel satisfied with their marital relationships (11).
When to seek help for memory loss
But what if your memory loss problems are significant and start to affect your quality of life? What is the difference between occasional forgetfulness and a progressive and disabling memory loss that requires medical help?
According to the National Institute of Aging, forgetfulness is a normal part of growing older. It is usually not severe and does not affect the patient’s quality of life. It doesn’t have deep social implications or affects their capacity to be independent.
They mention that it is essential to talk to your doctor if things go beyond normal forgetfulness. For example (12):
Asking the same questions over and over again
Getting lost in places you are already familiar with
Having severe problems following instructions or directions
Growing more and more confused about people’s faces, names, places, and time
Misplacing things often and finding them in very unusual places
Some older adults have a condition called Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Despite the tag “mild,” you should be aware of it, as it often leads to more severe problems. If that is what is happening, it is essential to follow up with these individuals medically on a 6–12-month basis.
If you have any alarming signs listed above or feel that memory loss is becoming a heavy burden, ruling out cognitive impairment is fundamental. Your doctor could detect an ailment that is triggering your problem. If that’s the case, treating the baseline problem could bring some normalcy back to your life.
During the diagnostic process, your doctor may require examining your body and mind through a neurologic physical exam. These exams feature different types of stimulation, gait evaluation, mental health tests, and more. One of them is the Mini-Mental State Exam, which is helpful to assess cognitive function. The Montreal Cognitive Assessment exam is also very popular, and Glasgow Coma Scale should be used in very severe cases where patients lose consciousness or enter a state of confusion.
Memory loss is a serious problem, and its symptoms should be examined thoroughly as cognitive impairment impacts the patient’s quality of life. It may even cause disability in more severe cases.
Memory loss happens when brain connections are lost due to brain injuries, chemical problems, and chronic disease. Chronic stress and emotional issues may also interfere with your executive memory.
In most cases, memory loss problems can be addressed by changes in our lifestyle and habits. Exercise, healthy nutrition, and using the right ingredients in supplements can be very beneficial. It is also essential to sleep appropriately, cope with stress and make changes in your environment to facilitate learning and remembering.
If you have any older adults with occasional memory issues, remember that these are a normal part of aging. However, the extent of the forgetfulness should not affect their ability to take care of themselves or create a burden in their social relationships. Monitor your elderly loved ones, and if you find alarming signs of cognitive impairment, talk to your doctor and give them the treatment and follow-up they need to prevent neurodegenerative problems or slow down its progression.