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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 doctor.
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.
The following information will tell you:
If you're worried because you or someone you care for has lost their memory, see your doctor. They'll do an initial assessment and ask questions about symptoms, family history and lifestyle. They may also order a blood test.
Memory loss has a wide range of possible causes, depending on the type of memory loss.
Doctors classify memories as either:
If your doctor thinks that you or your relative needs an assessment for dementia or that there may be another more serious underlying condition, such as brain damage, they'll refer you to a specialist.
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 (see below).
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 doctor. It may help to read this fact sheet that includes information on how to persuade your relative to see a doctor (PDF, 849Kb).
As a general guide:
Find out more about the symptoms of dementia and read our dementia campaign.
Generally, doctors find that patients who see them about memory loss are most likely to have:
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 doctor 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 behaviour, such as hoarding or being bad tempered.
Other common causes of memory loss are:
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 commonly, memory loss can be caused by:
Click on the links above for more information on these conditions.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.