It is not unusual to
occasionally forget where you put your keys or glasses, where you parked your
car, or the name of an acquaintance. As you age, it may take you longer to
remember things. Not all older adults have memory changes, but they can be a
normal part of aging. This type of memory problem is more often annoying than
Memory loss that begins suddenly or that significantly
interferes with your ability to function in daily life may mean a more serious
problem is present.
Dementia is a slow decline
in memory, problem-solving ability, learning ability, and judgment that may
occur over several weeks to several months. Many health conditions can cause
dementia or symptoms similar to dementia. In some cases dementia may be
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of
dementia in people older than age 65.
Delirium is a sudden change in how well a person's brain is
working (mental status). Delirium can cause confusion, change the sleep-wake
cycles, and cause unusual behavior. Delirium can have many causes, such as
withdrawal from alcohol or drugs or medicines, or the development or worsening
of an infection or other health problem.
Amnesia is memory loss that may be caused by a head injury, a
stroke, substance abuse, or a severe emotional event, such as from combat or a
motor vehicle accident. Depending upon the cause, amnesia may be either
temporary or permanent.
Confusion or decreased alertness may be the first
symptom of a serious illness, particularly in older adults. Health problems
that can cause confusion or decreased alertness include:
Many times other symptoms are present, such as a fever, chest
pain, or the inability to walk or stand. It is important to look for and tell
your doctor about other symptoms you experience when confusion or decreased
alertness occurs. This can help your doctor determine the cause of your
A decrease in alertness may progress to
loss of consciousness. A person who loses
consciousness is not awake and is not aware of his or her surroundings. Fainting
(syncope) is a form of brief unconsciousness. Coma is a
deep, prolonged state of unconsciousness.
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As you age, it is normal to
experience some memory lapses. Usually, an occasional memory lapse does not
mean you have a serious problem. Try these steps to help
improve your memory:
Focus your attention. Often forgetfulness may
mean that you have too much on your mind. Slow down and pay full attention to
the task you are doing now.
Stick to a routine. Complete common
tasks in the same order each time you do them.
environment to help improve your memory.
Use calendars and clocks.
lists, notes, and other helpful devices as reminders.
daily activities on a calendar or daily planner, and keep it in a place where
you can see it easily.
Store easy-to-lose items in the same place
each time after you use them. For example, install a hook by the door and hang
your keys from it every time you come in.
Try memory tricks, such as the following:
To remember a person's name, repeat it
several times after being introduced.
To recall numbers, group them
and then relate them to a date or story. For example, if your personal
identification number (PIN) is 2040, remember it with the phrase "20 plus 20
equals 40." Be sure to write down all your important numbers and keep them in a safe place.
Retrace your steps if you can't remember why you went
into a room.
Reduce your stress. Being anxious can impair your
memory. For more information, see the topic
Review all your
prescription and nonprescription
medicines and dosages with your doctor or pharmacist.
Many medicines, by themselves or in combination with other medicines, can cause
mental confusion. Also, confusion may occur when medicines interact in your
body. If you see several doctors, make sure that they all know what other
medicines you are taking. Have all of your prescriptions filled at the same
pharmacy. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether the combination of your
medicines could cause problems.
Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal treatment for memory
problems. But studies have not shown that ginkgo biloba helps improve memory or prevent dementia.1 Before you use any treatment for a memory problem, discuss the
potential risks and benefits of the treatment with your doctor.
Living with a family member who has a decline in memory, problem-solving
ability, learning ability, or judgment (dementia) is
hard. To ensure your family member's
health and safety, give him or her short instructions
when teaching a new task. Break the task down into simple steps. You may find
it helpful to give the person written instructions.
Drink plenty of water.
This helps to prevent
dehydration, which can cause confusion and memory
problems. For more information, see the topic
Get plenty of rest. Being
tired can impair your memory.
Do not smoke or use other tobacco
products. Tobacco products decrease blood flow to the brain, raise blood
pressure, and increase your risk of stroke. For more information, see the topic
Regular exercise can improve the blood flow to your brain. For more
information, see the topic
Reduce your stress. Being anxious
can impair your memory. For more information, see the topic
Socialize with family
and friends. Research has shown that people who regularly get together with
family or friends are less likely to lose mental function. Socializing also
helps you stay connected with your community.
Try to learn new
things. This may help increase your attention span and ability to
Play stimulating mind games, such as Scrabble, or do a
crossword puzzle or word jumble.
Limit your alcohol intake, and do
not use illegal drugs such as cocaine, crack, or amphetamines. For more
information, see the topic
Alcohol and Drug Problems.
use of nonprescription medicines. Overuse of medicines may be the single
biggest cause of memory loss or confusion in older adults.
your blood pressure at or below 130/85 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).
Untreated high blood pressure can cause memory problems and affect
problem-solving abilities. If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure,
take your medicines as directed. For more information, see the topic
High Blood Pressure.
depression if you think that you may be depressed.
Memory loss may be a symptom of depression. For more information, see the topic
Prevent accidents and injuries that might lead to memory
Wear your seat belt when you are traveling in a
Do not use alcohol or other drugs before
participating in sports or when operating an automobile or other
Wear a helmet and other protective clothing whenever you
are biking, motorcycling, skating, skate boarding, kayaking, horseback riding,
skiing, snowboarding, or rock climbing.
Wear a hard hat if you work
in a construction job or in an industrial area.
Do not dive into
shallow or unfamiliar water.
Prevent falls in your home by removing hazards that might cause a fall.
keep firearms in your home. If you must keep firearms, lock them up and store
them unloaded and uncocked. Lock ammunition in a separate area.
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.