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Being forgetful may be a symptom of illness 

It’s normal to become a bit forgetful as you get older. However, memory loss could be a symptom of something more serious and should be checked by a GP.

Memory loss, also called amnesia, occurs when a person loses the ability to remember events and information they would normally be able to recall. This could be something that happened only seconds or minutes ago or a memorable event that happened in the past. The memory loss may have started suddenly or may have been getting worse over the last year or so.

Memory loss can be distressing, for the person affected as well as for their family. Relatives may fear the worst and assume it’s caused by dementia, but this often isn’t the case.

Could it be dementia?

If you’re reading this because you think your memory problems may be a sign of dementia, rest assured that they probably aren’t. A person with dementia will not usually be aware of their memory loss or may deny it.

Your memory loss is likely to be caused by something a lot more common and treatable, such as depression.

You may be worried that someone you care for has dementia. However, bear in mind that around 40% of people aged over 65 have some kind of memory difficulty and only 15% will develop dementia each year.

If your instincts are correct, their denial or lack of awareness of their memory loss can make it hard to convince them to see a GP.

Signs that someone has dementia

As a general guide:

Dementia usually occurs in people over the age of 65.

Someone with dementia will struggle to remember immediate or recent events, but can still recall events that happened a long time ago. Therefore, if their long-term memory is affected, it probably isn’t dementia.

The memory loss doesn’t happen suddenly but gets gradually worse over time.

Common causes of memory loss

Generally, GPs find that patients who see them about memory loss are most likely to have anxiety, stress or depression.

Their memory loss is due to poor concentration and not noticing things in the first place because of a lack of interest. Sleeping problems make the memory loss worse.

Your GP may suggest trying antidepressant tablets. If their assumption is correct, these should improve the memory problems as the depression lifts.

An elderly person with memory loss is likely to have depression if they also experience changes in beha-viour, such as hoarding or being bad tempered.

Other common causes of memory loss are:

A head injury, for example after a car accident.

A stroke that cuts off some of the blood supply to the brain and causes brain tissue to die.

These will cause sudden memory loss, where you either forget events that happened before the trauma (retrograde amnesia), or you forget everything that happened after the trauma (anterograde amnesia).

Less common causes of memory loss

Less commonly, memory loss can be caused by:

An underactive thyroid, which means your thyroid gland (found in the neck) does not produce enough hormones.

Certain types of medication, such as sedatives and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease.

Long-term alcohol misuse.

Bleeding in the brain, known as subarachnoid haemorrhage.

Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, for example because of a digestive problem.

Problems with blood flow to part of the brain, which cause sudden episodes of memory loss that a person cannot recall afterwards (known as transient global amnesia).

A stressful or traumatic event that causes someone to block out the memory, leaving them unable to remember important information (known as psychogenic amnesia).

A brain tumour.