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Coping With Memory Loss


Illustrtation of brain with labels.

Cerebral Cortex

Previously formed memories are thought to be stored in the cerebral cortex.


Areas of the thalamus are considered to have a role in the formation of new memories partly through their connections with the hippocampus, and partly because the thalamus is considered to be important for mental alertness.


The hippocampus is believed to have a critical role in the formation of new memories.

 Sources: National Institute on Aging and FDA 


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Everyone has mild memory lapses from time to time. You go from the kitchen to the bedroom to get something, only to find yourself wondering what you needed. You can't find your car keys one day and your reading glasses the next.

Lapses such as these are usually just signs of a normal brain that's constantly prioritizing, sorting, storing, and retrieving all types of information. So how do you know when memory loss is abnormal and warrants evaluation by a health professional? Here are some questions to consider:

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What Can Cause Memory Loss?

Anything that affects cognition--the process of thinking, learning, and remembering--can affect memory. Doctors use a combination of strategies to gain better insight into what's going on, says Ranjit Mani, M.D., a neurologist and medical reviewer in the Food and Drug Administration's Division of Neurology Products.

FDA neurologist and medical reviewer Dr. Ranjit Mani, M.D., sitting at his desk holding a neurology text book.
FDA/Michael Ermarth

Ranjit Mani, M.D., is a medical reviewer in FDA's Division of Neurology Products.


Doctors evaluate memory loss by taking a medical history, asking questions to test mental ability, conducting a physical and neurological examination, and performing blood and urine tests. Brain imaging, using computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can help to identify strokes and tumors, which can sometimes cause memory loss. "The goal is to rule out factors that are potentially reversible and determine if the memory loss is due to a more serious brain disease," Mani says.

Causes of memory loss, some of which can occur together, include the following:

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Mild Cognitive Impairment

People with MCI have memory impairments, but otherwise function well and don't meet the clinical criteria for dementia. Whereas normal memory loss associated with aging may involve forgetting a name, memory loss associated with MCI is more severe and persistent.

MCI is often a transition stage between normal aging and more serious problems caused by AD. Most, but not all, people with MCI get worse. According to some studies, each year about 12 to 15 percent of people with MCI develop AD.

"Some people never decline in five years and with others, we might see a decline in the third year," says Reisa Sperling, M.D., associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of clinical research at the Memory Disorders Unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "In older people with MCI, if the memory loss is slowly getting worse, the chances of developing AD are about 60 percent to 70 percent."

Research is under way on whether the drugs approved to treat symptoms of AD may help some people with MCI. Scientists hope that some day, accurate and early evaluation and treatment of people with MCI may help prevent further cognitive decline.

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Alzheimer's Disease

AD is the most common form of dementia in people older than age 65, and affects more than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Association. AD is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease characterized in the brain by abnormal protein deposits (amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers within nerve cells (neurofibrillary tangles). The biggest risk factors are age and family history. Having a history of serious concussion is also a risk factor.

AD gradually destroys a person's memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate, and carry out daily activities. Memory loss becomes severe and is marked by disorientation, general confusion, and an inability to recall recent events. A person with mild-to-moderate AD may remember things that happened to them a long time ago, but they might get lost easily in a familiar place. People with AD may also experience changes in personality and behavior such as withdrawal and suspicion. They eventually experience a loss of speech and movement, incapacitation, and death. Some facts about AD treatment follow:

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Other Diseases That Cause Dementia

Dementia is diagnosed when two or more brain functions, such as memory and language skills, are significantly impaired, according to criteria set forth by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). In practice, doctors use the same drugs that are used to treat AD to treat some other types of dementia.

Vascular dementia. In people who have vascular dementia, also called multi-infarct dementia, arteries to the brain become blocked or narrowed. As a result, changes in the blood supply to the brain occur or multiple strokes disrupt blood flow to the brain. Symptoms may be similar to those of AD, although they usually occur more abruptly. Treatment focuses on preventing future strokes by controlling risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Lewy body dementia. This progressive brain disease is caused by a buildup of protein deposits called Lewy bodies. It involves progressive cognitive decline, problems with alertness and attention, recurrent visual hallucinations, and motor problems similar to those seen with Parkinson's disease, such as rigidity. Treatment aims to control symptoms of the disorder. Antipsychotic medications for hallucinations aren't typically prescribed because there is a risk of the hallucinations becoming worse.

Parkinson's disease with dementia. Parkinson's disease results from the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. The primary symptoms are trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; body stiffness; and slowness of movement and impaired balance and coordination. Memory loss sometimes occurs with late-stage Parkinson's disease. Exelon (rivastigmine), which is approved for mild-to-moderate AD, is also approved by the FDA for the treatment of dementia with Parkinson's disease.

Frontotemporal dementia. This type of dementia is associated with the shrinking of the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of the brain. Symptoms involve either impulsive or listless behavior, and may include socially inappropriate behavior. Some forms of frontotemporal dementia consist of progressive loss of language functions. No treatment has been shown to slow the progression. Antidepressants and behavior modification may improve some symptoms.

Huntington's disease. This inherited brain disorder causes uncontrolled movements, loss of memory and other cognitive problems, and emotional disturbance. Some early symptoms are mood swings, depression, and difficulty learning new things and remembering facts. Medications help control emotional and movement problems.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). In the early stages of this rare, degenerative brain disorder, people may experience failing memory, behavioral changes, lack of coordination, and visual disturbances. Mental impairment becomes rapidly more severe as the illness progresses. There is no drug to cure or control CJD, but some drugs may help with symptoms.

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Resources for Coping

Coping with memory loss can be frustrating for both the person affected and family members and caregivers. Some families use memory aids to help quality of life, such as color coding and labeling items in the home with safety notes and directions for use, and using alarms and talking clocks to keep track of time and remember medication doses. Families also may experience anger, exhaustion, irritability, and other symptoms of caregiver stress.

Alzheimer's Association. Resources of the Alzheimer's Association include an online message board; a 24/7 toll-free number; information on legal, financial, and living-arrangement decisions; and referrals to local community programs. Services include CareFinder, an interactive tool to help you choose home and residential care providers, and Safe Return, a program that helps when a person with AD or a related dementia wanders and becomes lost.

Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center. A service of the NIA. Information specialists can answer questions and offer free publications on home safety tips, caregiving tips, and information on the diagnosis and treatment of AD and related disorders, and ongoing research. A joint NIA and FDA effort maintains the Alzheimer's Disease Clinical Trials Database.

Family Caregiver Alliance. This alliance offers online discussion groups and caregiver information in English, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as fact sheets, including the Caregiver's Guide to Understanding Dementia Behaviors.

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Can Memory Loss Be Prevented?

Two older women playing biliards.

'Social interaction … has been associated with a lower risk of dementia.'


There is no conclusive evidence that the herb ginkgo biloba prevents memory loss. And research has shown that the combination of estrogen and progestin increased the risk of dementia in women older than age 65.

So what can you do to prevent memory loss? Clinical trials are under way to test specific interventions. While those tests are being conducted, you may want to consider hints from animal and observational studies of promising approaches. These steps are already beneficial in other ways and may help reduce the risk of developing memory problems.

Sources: NIH, Alzheimer's Association

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For More Information

National Institute on Aging

Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center
(800) 438-4380

Alzheimer's Association
(800) 272-3900

Family Caregiver Alliance

National Family Caregivers Association

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Date Posted: May 3, 2007

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