Memory disorder

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at October 19, 2016
StartDiseasesMemory disorder

Memory disorders are conditions in which memory loss occurs. They can range from mild to debilitating and they can be be gradual, such as memory loss that occurs due to the aging process, or they can have a sudden onset, such as when the head receives a traumatic injury.


Definition & Facts

When a person's memory and learning are affected, the person may have a memory disorder. The damage can be permanent or temporary. Memory disorders can affect both working memory which holds information briefly and secondary memory in which information is stored. The hippocampus is responsible for converting short-term memory into long-term memory. Types of memory disorders include:

Symptoms & Complaints

Symptoms of memory disorders can include:

  • Confusion, including not knowing what the day, date, season, or what one's address is, and so forth
  • Difficulty with visual imaging
  • Difficulty recalling words
  • Inability to maintain a cogent conversation
  • Poor judgment
  • Mood swings and/or personality changes
  • Repeatedly asking the same question

The presence of one or two of these symptoms doesn't necessarily indicate a memory disorder. However, the presence of several or all of them could indicate the need for medical evaluation.


Sometimes diet and lifestyle, including dehydration, can affect memory retention; sometimes age can be the culprit; sometimes it's genetic; sometimes the cause is unknown or idiopathic.

Smoking and alcohol abuse can affect memory retention. Smoking also contributes to atherosclerosis, which inhibits blood flow to the brain. Chronic alcohol use can precipitate significant memory impairment, particularly when used in combination with some medications.

Some medications can adversely affect the memory. For instance, beta blockers, which are commonly prescribed for hypertension, angina, migraines, and other maladies, can cause a decline in memory. Antidepressants have also been linked to memory problems.

Depression, anxiety, or other issues with mental health can precipitate a memory disorder. Thyroid disorders can cause memory impairment, as can a deficiency in vitamin B-12. A brain tumor can adversely affect the memory. The aging process often results in a decline in memory function.

Alzheimer's disease and Lewy body dementia are linked to the buildup of certain proteins in the brain though the exact processes that underlie these diseases remain unknown.

Diagnosis & Tests

In addition to performing a physical examination and a neurological examination which examines a patient's motor and sensory functions, medical personnel will ask the following questions:

  • The duration of the symptoms
  • Medications used, both new and longstanding, and their dosages
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Recent illnesses
  • State of mental health
  • Major stressors experienced recently, such as death, divorce, moving, and so forth
  • Tasks that have become difficult
  • Efforts made to remedy memory loss
  • Recent traumas experienced, such as an accident or a fall
  • Details of the daily routine and changes that have occurred to it

In addition to questions, both brain imaging and blood tests may be necessary to determine the cause of the memory loss and the best treatment options. Examples of neuroimaging tests include computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Blood tests could reveal possible causes of dementia, such as anemia, HIV, hypothyroidism, and herpes. A psychiatric assessment and psychological evaluation may also be performed to determine if an underlying mental disorder is a cause or contributing factor.

Treatment & Therapy

The treatment for memory disorders depends on the type and cause of the disorders. Some, such as Korsakoff syndrome, are caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency (also known as beriberi), which is common among alcoholics. Treatment for this condition includes administering thiamine, and treatment for any alcohol-related brain disease necessarily involves treatment for alcoholism such as psychotherapy, counseling, group therapy, and other modalities.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, although rare, is a degenerative brain disease that is usually fatal. At present, although several medications have been tested, there is no cure for this memory disorder. Alzheimer's disease is treated with acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and memantine

HIV dementia treatment is best when the HIV is treated early. Drugs used for treating the illness can dramatically slow the progression of HIV dementia and the incidence of it has dropped with the improved treatment options now available for HIV. Antiretroviral therapy is used to treat HIV and involves a combination of medications.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Preventing some degree of memory loss can involve maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes healthy diet, adequate hydration, and regular exercise. Exercise also reduces the likelihood of developing diseases such as diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and atherosclerosis, all of which can adversely affect the memory.

Vitamin supplements such as B-12 and ginkgo biloba may positively impact one's cogntive functioning though clinical research is mixed. Brain exercises such as sudoku and crossword puzzles, memory puzzles, and so forth, can help maintain mental clarity and focus. 

Social interaction has been shown to inhibit memory decline, in part because it can deter depression. Adequate, quality sleep is essential for memory retention. The body undergoes a rejuvenation cycle during sleep and when sleep is interrupted, the cycle is interrupted and the body cannot function as well.

Quitting smoking and stress reduction are two of the most important methods for deterring memory decline. Cortisol, the stress hormone, inhibits memory function and smoking can precipitate mini-strokes in the brain.

Although there is no way to prevent memory disorders with certainty, proper self-care and prompt attention to health issues can help prevent many of them.