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Causes of Memory Loss and Forgetfulness | Your Symptoms Explained

A person with grey hair sits on a bed, holding a photo frame, in a moment reflective of memory loss
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Last updated May 3, 2024

Forgetfullness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your forgetfullness.

Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. However, forgetfulness can be a sign of a serious memory loss condition. Learn about the top 5 causes of forgetfulness.

Forgetfullness quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your forgetfullness.

Take forgetfullness quiz

Symptoms of forgetfulness

How many times have you found yourself frantically rifling through a purse or backpack for keys? Or even forgotten the name of that person you just met? We all forget things, but sometimes, if not addressed, memory issues can begin to be a real issue. You should keep your physician updated on symptoms of forgetfulness. Although forgetfulness is part of aging, you should try to understand the difference between age-related symptoms and memory loss related to other conditions.

Common characteristics of forgetfulness related to aging

If you're experiencing the following, it is likely due to normal aging.

  • You forget where you parked your car in a full parking lot
  • You get lost in a new neighborhood or city
  • You miss a monthly payment or another due date
  • You forget the day of the week and remember it later
  • You forget what word to use
  • You misplace things occasionally
  • You forget the name of a person you just met

More concerning characteristics

If you're experiencing the following, you may have a memory-related illness.

  • You forget the route home
  • You get lost in a familiar location
  • You miss payments for multiple bills or keep forgetting due dates
  • You lose track of the date, time, or year
  • You have trouble having a conversation
  • You frequently lose things and are unable to find them
  • You forget the names of family members or close friends

Causes of forgetfulness

The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you need to see a physician.

Medical causes

Medical causes of forgetfulness may include the following.

  • Dementia: Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe several diseases that cause difficulty with memory and thinking. Dementia is a serious cause of memory loss that interferes with your independence and daily activities.
  • Thyroid Issues: A malfunctioning thyroid can affect memory, cause depression, and hinder sleep.
  • Medications: Cold medication, such as for a runny nose, may contribute to forgetfulness. Allergy medicine, antidepressants, and blood pressure drugs are also known to cause confusion and forgetfulness.

Psychological causes

Psychological causes of forgetfulness may include the following.

  • Depression: Feeling significantly down can cause forgetfulness, confusion, and other problems.
  • Anxiety: People who worry frequently have trouble with their memory.

Environmental causes

Environmental causes of forgetfulness may be related to certain habits or events.

  • Head trauma or injury: Any situation that results in a blow to the head can produce symptoms of memory loss.
  • Lack of sleep: A good night's rest is the brain's way of recovering. If your brain is struggling due to lack of sleep, your memory will struggle as well.
  • Stress: When aspects of life such as family, school, work, etc. become overwhelming, it can be difficult to be mindful of all these moving parts.
  • Alcohol: Alcohol can interfere with short-term memory even after the effects of the alcohol have worn off. Chronic alcoholism can lead to long-term memory issues.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Condition involving inability to understand or express words

Any new speech difficulty should be seen by a doctor immediately because it could be the sign of brain or nerve damage.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: difficulty speaking or understand words or finding the right word, loss of vision, difficulty coming up with the names of common objects or people, arm weakness

Urgency: Emergency medical service

Condition causing slurred speech

Slurring of one's speech could be from substance intoxication or from a stroke. A doctor needs to make this distinction. You should see one immediately.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: slurred speech, arm weakness, hearing voices or seeing things that aren't there, odd walking gait, hard testicle lump

Urgency: Emergency medical service

Post-concussion syndrome

Concussion symptoms tend to last for a few days to weeks. Sometimes, symptoms are long term, lingering for several months or even years. This is known as post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Some of the most common PCS symptoms include headaches and confusion. Memory problems and difficulty concentrating may also occur.

You should consider visiting a medical professional in the next two weeks to discuss your symptoms. A doctor can evaluate PCS with a review of your symptoms and an MRI. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on your specific symptoms but often focuses on letting the brain rest and recuperate. You may be asked to temporarily stop sports and exercise until you are cleared to return.

Parkinson's disease

Parkinson's disease is a lifelong condition movement disorder. It is caused by the malfunction and death of nerve cells which results in symptoms like tremors.

You should visit your primary care physician to discuss your symptoms.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: anxiety, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation

Symptoms that always occur with parkinson's disease: symptoms of parkinsonism

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Fibromyalgia is a set of chronic symptoms that include ongoing fatigue, diffuse tenderness to touch, musculoskeletal pain, and usually some degree of depression.

The cause is not known. When fibromyalgia appears, it is usually after a stressful physical or emotional event such as an automobile accident or a divorce. It may include a genetic component where the person experiences normal sensation as pain.

Almost 90% of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. Anyone with rheumatic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, may be more prone to fibromyalgia.

Poor sleep is often a symptom, along with foggy thinking, headaches, painful menstrual periods, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, bright lights, and loud noises.

There is no standard test for fibromyalgia. The diagnosis is usually made when the above symptoms go on for three months or more with no apparent cause.

Fibromyalgia does not go away on its own but does not get worse, either.

Treatment involves easing symptoms and improving the patient's quality of life through pain medications, exercise, improved diet, and help with managing stressful situations.

Brain tumor or mass

In medical terms, "mass" and "tumor" mean the same thing: the unexplained, out-of-place growth of tissue anywhere in the body, including the brain.

The cause of any sort of brain tumor is unknown. Some originate in the brain, while others spread from cancers growing in other parts of the body.

Symptoms may include increasing headaches; nausea and vomiting; blurred or double vision; loss of sensation in an arm or leg; loss of balance; confusion; speech difficulties; or seizures.

If symptoms persist, it is important to see a medical provider so that any treatment can begin as soon as possible.

Diagnosis is made through neurological examination, CT scan, and/or MRI.

If the mass or tumor is found to be benign, that means it is not cancer and not harmful. It may or may not be treated.

If it is malignant, that means it is cancer and must be treated. This will involve some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, followed by specialized therapy to help with recovery.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability

Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass: focal neurological symptoms

Urgency: In-person visit

Forgetfulness treatments and relief

At-home treatments

If you notice that your symptoms of forgetfulness mostly fall into the age-related category, try changing your routine as the first line of treatment or using simple tools to boost your memory and help you think clearly.

  • Get a good night's sleep: Consistently getting a solid eight or nine hours of sleep at night can work wonders for your memory and concentration.
  • Write things down: Jotting things down on paper or even in an app on your phone is a great way to stimulate your brain and keep details in your memory.
  • Set reminders: A pop-up reminder on your phone or computer is a quick way to make sure you don't forget the little details during your day-to-day.
  • Make a schedule: Making a schedule or creating lists that outline tasks you need to accomplish will help you remember the important things.
  • Inventory your medications: Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you suspect that a new medication is keeping you in a fog and discuss alternatives you can take instead.

Here are some over-the-counter (OTC) options that could support your cognitive health:

Omega-3 Supplements: These fatty acids are essential for brain health and can help improve cognitive functions.

Ginkgo Biloba: Known for its potential to aid memory and cognitive speed.

Vitamin B12: Essential for nerve health and cognitive function, especially if you're experiencing memory issues.

When to see a doctor

If your forgetfulness symptoms are significantly interfering with your day-to-day, schedule an appointment with your doctor. He or she will perform tests to determine the cause and degree of your memory impairment. After the initial evaluation, your doctor may suggest:

  • Therapy: Working with a professional is the best way to address underlying problems like depression or anxiety that may be contributing to memory problems.
  • Medication: There are currently several medications available for treating some forms of dementia.

When it is an emergency

Call 911 and see a doctor immediately if you have the following symptoms:

FAQs about forgetfulness

Why do I have sudden forgetfulness and confusion?

Sudden forgetfulness and confusion can be a sign of dehydration. As you stand, especially if you have been sitting for an extended time, you may have a decrease in blood flow to your brain. Low blood flow may cause dizziness, confusion, and even small bouts of forgetfulness. If the forgetfulness and confusion persists or recurs, seek medical evaluation.

Can headaches cause forgetfulness?

No, headaches themselves do not commonly cause memory loss. Memory loss is a serious symptom that can be caused by a process affecting the brain. A headache and memory loss can be signs indicating a stroke. If you are experiencing headache and associated memory loss, you should seek medical evaluation.

Why am I so forgetful when I'm pregnant?

Currently, we do not know why pregnancy affects cognitive function. A large analysis of prior studies showed that memory, executive functioning, and mood were negatively affected during pregnancy. Currently, untested hypotheses attribute this to the stress of caring for and carrying a child. Additionally, the increase in hormones present during pregnancy may affect memory.

Is forgetfulness a sign of anxiety?

Yes, forgetfulness or memory problems may be a sign of anxiety. Anxiety and worry use mental faculties that are then unavailable to both commit items to memory and to learn new skills. While some stress is useful to increase functioning, excess stress and anxiety may leave an individual unable to rest and contribute to poor performance and burnout.

Why am I tired and forgetful all the time?

Fatigue and memory loss are common symptoms across the lifespan and may be attributable to many diagnoses. The most common cause of fatigue and memory loss is sleep deprivation. An insufficient quantity or quality of sleep can have a serious effect on short term memory and can lead to fatigue and a lack of attention throughout the day.

Questions your doctor may ask about forgetfulness

  • Are you having difficulty concentrating or thinking through daily activities?
  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Have you lost your appetite recently?
  • Have you had an X-Ray or a CT scan of your head or neck?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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