What Causes Memory Loss and Forgetfulness in Seniors?

What Causes Memory Loss and Forgetfulness in Seniors?

Changes in memory are a natural part of the aging process. 40% of all people over 65 experience some degree of age-related forgetfulness and may have trouble recalling information. They may also find they misplace things more frequently, occasionally forget tasks, or have more difficulty learning new things.

Forgetfulness is a frequent cause of anxiety for older adults, but what causes memory loss?

Age-associated memory loss doesn’t have a specific cause beyond normal aging. However, certain lifestyle factors can affect how your brain ages and, therefore, how likely you are to experience memory loss. There are also medical conditions that can contribute to cognitive impairment among seniors, such as head injuries and Alzheimer’s disease.

Factors Contributing to Memory Loss and Forgetfulness

Aging is an inevitable aspect of life, but what causes forgetfulness and memory loss? lifestyle lifestyle factors and medical conditions can contribute to age-related memory impairment, including stress, diet, head injuries, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Medical Conditions

Medical conditions that can contribute to memory loss include dementia, various vitamin deficiencies, metabolic issues, side effects of certain medications, or head injuries.

Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia

Sometimes, memory loss can be an early sign of dementia. Memory impairment caused by dementia is usually more severe than normal age-related forgetfulness. It may inhibit a person’s ability to maintain their usual routine, learn new things, or complete familiar tasks.

If you’re worried about your memory, schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms. There are several possible causes for memory loss besides dementia, including depression and anxiety. 

Mild cognitive impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) falls somewhere between normal age-related forgetfulness and early-stage dementia. Someone with MCI will have more memory problems than other people their age and may lose things more often or forget important events. However, their cognitive issues are not pronounced enough to fit the criteria for dementia.

People with MCI have a higher risk of developing dementia than those with age-related memory impairment. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of MCI, schedule an appointment with your doctor. They will be able to professionally assess your symptoms and determine if they are the result of MCI or another medical condition. 

Vitamin deficiencies and other metabolic issues

Certain vitamin deficiencies have a significant impact on brain health and can contribute to forgetfulness, poor concentration, and memory decline. One study found that 40% of older adults with memory loss were deficient in at least one vitamin linked to brain health. Vitamins linked to brain health include B1, B6, B12, and D.

Fortunately, vitamin deficiencies are often easy to address. Taking dietary supplements can boost your vitamin levels and may help improve your memory. In one study, 84% of patients with MCI saw a marked improvement in these symptoms after 3 months of taking B12 supplements.

Other metabolic disorders can lead to cognitive impairment and memory loss by disrupting normal brain function. These include:

  • Hormonal disorders
  • Exposure to heavy metals (like lead, arsenic, mercury, or manganese)
  • Hypoglycemia
  • High blood calcium levels
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Liver cirrhosis
  • Kidney failure
  • Porphyria
  • Methanol poisoning
  • Wilson disease
  • Mitochondrial disorders
  • Rapid changes in sodium levels

If you suspect your memory loss is linked to vitamin deficiency or another metabolic disorder, discuss your symptoms with a doctor. In some cases, early treatment of these conditions can reverse their effects on brain health.

Side effects of certain medications

Some medications can cause memory loss as a side effect. Medications that may interfere with your memory include antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and narcotic painkillers.

Two classes of drugs are associated with an increased risk of dementia in people who use them for longer than a few months. These are benzodiazepines (a group of drugs used to treat anxiety and sleep problems) and anticholinergics (a group of medications for depression, allergies and colds, high blood pressure, and incontinence). 

Traumatic brain injury

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when a head injury causes damage to the brain. TBIs may be classified as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on the extent of the injury and the resulting symptoms. 

Memory problems are very common among people with moderate to severe TBIs. Brain injuries typically cause short-term memory problems, such as:

  • Forgetting details of a conversation
  • Forgetting where you left things
  • Difficulty remembering recent events
  • Losing track of time
  • Difficulty remembering routes you have recently taken
  • Forgetting details of recent experiences, e.g., the events of a movie you just saw

Certain types of TBIs can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia years after the initial injury.

Lifestyle Factors

Lifestyle factors that can contribute to forgetfulness and memory loss include stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, diet, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

Stress and anxiety

Stress and anxiety are well-documented causes of memory loss and forgetfulness. This is because stress and anxiety make it harder to concentrate and interfere with your ability to form and retrieve memories.

Stress and anxiety are often triggered by overwhelming life experiences. Anxiety problems may also stem from childhood experiences or other physical and mental health issues. If you think stress and anxiety are impacting your memory, speak with your doctor about your symptoms and possible treatment options.

Lack of sleep

Poor-quality sleep is strongly linked to dementia and memory loss. Lack of sleep can limit your ability to focus and learn new information, and sleep deprivation is known to increase forgetfulness. This is because poor-quality sleep limits your focus and ability to learn new things.

Your memories are also consolidated when you sleep. This is a process in which new information is transformed into stable, long-lasting memories. Therefore, adequate rest is key for successful memory recall, and too little sleep can make you more likely to forget things.

Poor diet

Nutritional deficiencies caused by a poor diet can contribute to memory loss and forgetfulness. Diets high in fat and sugar can also impair cognitive health and contribute to poor memory.

A nutrient-rich dementia diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, and healthy fats can boost brain health and overall cognitive function. Eating a healthy diet may even reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease  and other types of dementia.

Alcoholism and substance abuse

Alcohol impairs your ability to form long-term memories, and heavy drinking can cause periods of total memory loss (i.e., ‘blackouts’). Excessive alcohol consumption can also increase your risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Chronic substance abuse can also interfere with your memory and cause forgetfulness. Benzodiazepines are the drugs most commonly associated with memory loss. However, many different types of drug addiction have been linked to cognitive impairment.

How Do You Regain Memory?

If you notice your memory slipping, there are several things you can do to boost your cognitive function

For example, regular physical activity can benefit your brain health. One study found that women who exercised for 5 minutes had better memory recall than those who didn’t exercise. Further research has found a link between regular exercise and a lower overall risk of dementia and cognitive decline.

Older adults with mild cognitive impairment of dementia may be able to improve their cognitive function with puzzles for seniors or other meaningful activities for dementia patients. Puzzles and brainteasers may help improve verbal, nonverbal, and working memory, and cognitive stimulation could reduce your risk of dementia.

A healthy, balanced diet and active lifestyle may also reduce your long-term risk of dementia. Antioxidant-rich foods like green, leafy vegetables and blueberries are thought to enhance cognition and improve memory.

Overall, a balanced diet, regular exercise, and good-quality sleep are the best ways to protect your cognitive and general health.


What causes memory loss and forgetfulness in your 50s?

Memory impairment is a natural part of aging, and age-related forgetfulness is common among older adults. However, memory loss can be exacerbated by a variety of medical conditions and lifestyle factors.

When does memory loss start?

Age-related forgetfulness often starts in middle age, and 40% of people aged 65 and over experience some form of memory loss. Memory problems are often part of normal aging, but a more pronounced cognitive decline could be a sign of early-stage dementia.

Why am I losing my short-term memory?

A variety of medical and lifestyle factors can contribute to short-term memory loss. Depression, stress and anxiety, poor sleep and diet, alcoholism, substance abuse, and certain medications can all contribute to forgetfulness. In older adults, memory loss is often a normal part of brain aging.

Is it normal to forget words?

Sometimes forgetting which word to use is a normal aspect of age-related forgetfulness. However, forgetting important names or having trouble holding a conversation may be a sign of cognitive decline

Is memory impairment the same as memory loss?

There are different types of memory loss. Memory impairment, or mild cognitive impairment, is typically used to describe more advanced cognitive difficulties than those associated with normal aging.


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About The Author

Mary Anne Roberto, the co-founder of Always Home Connected is a dedicated CNA and a Certified Positive Approach To Care Consultant (Teepa Snow), specializing in dementia care.  Her goal is to create awareness about those experiencing cognitive changes and to provide caregivers with resources and tools that are necessary to help alleviate some of the challenges caregivers face on a day-to-day basis.