Definition and Overview

Forgetfulness is defined as a memory lapse or inability to retrieve stored information in the brain. Although it can be a normal part of the aging process, it can also be a symptom of diseases or conditions or a side effect of medication and procedures.

The brain is one of the most complex parts of the body that is responsible for equally complex processes, including how it stores and helps retrieve memories. Memories are incredibly important since they are the foundation of our learning. A person who “forgets” how to eat can suffer from malnutrition in the long term. In a much deeper sense, memories help enrich our lives and make us more connected to our emotions, build relationships with others, and reveal our identities.

Memories are either short term or long term, and they are stored in different ways. The short-term memory is governed by pre-frontal lobe. These types of memories are not immediately converted into long-term ones. It takes time before they are processed by the hippocampus. The hippocampus, on the other hand, relies on other sections that regulate sensory perceptions in order to store a “complete” version of the memory. For example, a woman who has given birth would create a single long-term memory composed of what she saw, heard, and felt during the event.

As the connections are being established by the neurons, the patterns become fixed. This way, when something triggers the memory—say, a photo of the newborn—all the sensory perceptions related to it come “flooding” or remembered by the person.

However, many factors can affect the person’s ability to remember information or memory.

Causes of Condition

Memory can be significantly affected by aging. As the body ages, various processes and chemical reactions occur in the vital organs, such as the brain. These changes, meanwhile, may affect sections of the brains that are responsible for sensory perceptions and memories. This may explain why it’s more difficult for older people to learn new things or retain new information.

On the other hand, the condition may be caused by:

  • Dementia – Dementia is a broad term involving damage or injury to the brain that may result in inability to remember memories and life’s skills such as communicating or eating. One of the most common types of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Although dementia has been around for some time, it still doesn’t have any cure. Further, it is progressive, so the only option is to delay the damage to the brain as much as possible. The exact cause of dementia is also not completely known. For example, experts theorized that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the buildup of tangles and plaques, but they are not sure how they develop in the first place. Another popular kind of dementia is vascular, which results when something such as an infection or a blood clot restricts the supply of blood to the brain, causing damage to the neurons and tissues. A person may also develop frontotemporal dementia (dementia caused by the damage to the front and temporal lobes) and Lewy body dementia, which has similar signs and symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Amnesia – Also referred to as amnesic syndrome, it is characterized by memory loss after a trauma such as an accident or injury. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t result in the loss of self-identity. However, the person may have a hard time remembering the events before the trauma or retaining short-term memory after the accident. Although some succeed in regaining these memories, others would find the condition permanent.

  • Medications – A number of medications such as antidepressants have been discovered to alter the chemistry of the brain, eventually affecting the organ’s ability to store or retrieve information.

  • Lifestyle – A person’s lifestyle can also significantly lead to forgetfulness. It’s been recently discovered that during sleep, the brain replays the activities of the day while neurons form new connections. But to do this, the person should already be in deep sleep. Memory can also be affected by the lack of vitamin B12, smoking, and alcohol.

Key Symptoms

Forgetting things should not be immediately a cause of alarm. A person, nevertheless, may have to seek the help of a health care provider if:

  • Short-term memory is poor or weak
  • Inability to remember names or recognize faces
  • Getting lost in familiar locations
  • Confusion
  • Gradual loss of life’s skills
  • Slurred speech or loss of the ability to communicate
  • Repeating the same information over and over
  • Asking the same questions
  • Difficulty in following directions
  • Changes in learning capabilities
  • Sudden changes in behavior or mood
  • Disassociation of words (e.g., calling a plate a fork)

Who to See and Treatments Available

Usually, forgetfulness, especially the one caused by a condition, can occur gradually that by the time it is discovered, it is already in a more advanced stage. Recent studies, for example, have revealed that although Alzheimer’s disease can occur between the ages of 60 and 75 years old, the damage to the brain may have already begun at least 20 years before.

One of the best ways to deal with condition-related memory loss is to undergo routine examinations including blood tests. These can reveal health issues that may potentially affect the brain such as high blood pressure. A person should also pay more attention to subtle signs especially a progressive change of personality or inability to retain certain types of information.

The treatment for forgetfulness depends on the actual cause. If it’s age-related, a person can overcome it by:

  • Listing events or tasks in a journal or pad
  • Engaging in brain-centric activities such as writing, reading, memorizing poems, or answering crossword puzzles
  • Retelling memories as often as possible

Dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, may be treated by:

  • Removing the cause such as blood clots or infection
  • Providing medications such as antipsychotics, memantine hydrochloride, and Aricept inhibitors
  • Managing depression, which usually affects people who have been diagnosed with dementia

A healthy person can effectively deal with possible memory loss by:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Avoiding too much alcohol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing stress and anxiety

  • Kirshner HS. Approaches to intellectual and memory impairments. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 6.

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