Daniel Pendick

7 common causes of forgetfulness

Memory slips are aggravating, frustrating, and sometimes worrisome. When they happen more than they should, they can trigger fears of looming dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But as I write in this month’s Harvard Men’s Health Watch, there are many mundane—and treatable—causes of forgetfulness. Here are seven common ones.

Lack of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is perhaps the greatest unappreciated cause of memory slips. Too little restful sleep can also lead to mood changes and anxiety, which in turn contribute to problems with memory.

Medications. Tranquilizers, antidepressants, some blood pressure drugs, and other medications can affect memory, usually by causing sedation or confusion. That can make it difficult to pay close attention to new things. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you suspect that a new medication is taking the edge off your memory. As shown in the table below, alternatives are usually available.

Medications that may affect memory and possible substitutes
If you take these drugs… … ask about switching to one of these drugs
paroxetine (Paxil) another antidepressant such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or sertraline (Zoloft), or a different type of antidepressant such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) or venlafaxine (Effexor)
cimetidine (Tagamet) a different type of heartburn drug, such as lansoprazole (Prevacid), omeprazole (Prilosec), or esomeprazole (Nexium)
oxybutynin (Ditropan) or tolterodine (Detrol, Detrusitol) other medications for an overactive bladder, such as trospium (Sanctura), solifenacin (Vesicare), or darifenacin (Enablex)
amitriptyline (Elavil), desipramine (Norpramin), or nortriptyline (Aventyl, Pamelor) another type of medication, depending on why your doctor has prescribed a tricyclic antidepressant (neuropathic pain, depression, etc.)
captopril (Capoten) a different type of ACE inhibitor, such as enalapril, lisinopril, or ramipril
cold or allergy medication containing brompheniramine, chlorpheniramine, or diphenhydramine loratadine (Claritin) or other non-sedating antihistamine

(Adapted from Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report)

Underactive thyroid. A faltering thyroid can affect memory (as well as disturb sleep and cause depression, both of which contribute to memory slips). A simple blood test can tell if your thyroid is doing its job properly.

Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with short-term memory, even after the effects of alcohol have worn off. Although “too much” varies from person to person, it’s best to stick with the recommendation of no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one a day for women. One drink is generally defined as 1.5 ounces (1 shot glass) of 80-proof spirits, 5 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer.

Stress and anxiety. Anything that makes it harder to concentrate and lock in new information and skills can lead to memory problems. Stress and anxiety fill the bill. Both can interfere with attention and block the formation of new memories or the retrieval of old ones.

Depression. Common signs of depression include a stifling sadness, lack of drive, and lessening of pleasure in things you ordinarily enjoy. Forgetfulness can also be a sign of depression—or a consequence of it.

If memory lapses are bugging you, it’s worth a conversation with your doctor to see if any reversible causes are at the root of the problem. Something like getting more sleep, switching a medication, or a stress reduction program could get your memory back on track.

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  2. Melanie daniels

    this is very helpful information. should there be an age group of when someone can expect momory forgetfulness.?

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  5. Anonymous

    This is really a good post expalining about most common causes for forgetfulness. Mental tensions and Depression are the most common causes for forgetfulness.

  6. Elena Grace Flores

    Under active thyroid can also cause forgetfulness? No wonder I keep on forgetting but is hyperthyroidism the same as under active thyroid? Health is my number one concern and it helps to have articles like this.