Forgetfulness

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Introduction

What is forgetfulness?

Forgetfulness is a persistent failure to remember. It results from changes in the brain and can be a normal part of aging or a symptom of another condition or disease. When you experience forgetfulness, you may find it harder to recall information or events, learn new things, or form new memories.

Common causes of forgetfulness include aging, side effects from medications, trauma, vitamin deficiencies, cancer in the brain, and infections in the brain, as well as a variety of other disorders and diseases. Stress, overwork, inadequate rest, and perpetual distractions all interfere with short-term memory.

In an aging adult, forgetfulness beyond the normal rate may be a symptom of a disease like Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. It is important to determine the underlying cause of your forgetfulness and begin treatment as soon as possible.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if someone has acute or sudden forgetfulness after a head injury or when accompanied by sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, severe headache, difficulty speaking, or facial droop.

If your forgetfulness seems to be progressing quickly, is persistent, or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with forgetfulness?

Forgetfulness may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Generally, forgetfulness can be related to aging, head trauma, or other conditions or disorders.

Symptoms of forgetfulness that may occur along with aging

Forgetfulness may accompany other symptoms related to aging including:

  • Changes in mood, personality or behavior

  • Difficulty speaking

  • Difficulty understanding

  • Difficulty with skills like calculations

Common symptoms that may occur along with forgetfulness related to trauma

Forgetfulness may accompany symptoms related to head trauma including:

  • Abrupt changes in personality, such as anger or irritability, without an apparent cause

  • Bone fractures or deformity, especially of the skull or face

  • Clear or blood-tinged fluid coming from the mouth, ears or nose

  • Confusion; drowsiness; clumsiness; memory loss; lethargy; or trouble speaking, seeing or hearing

  • Difficulty breathing or not breathing

  • Droopy eyelid

  • Facial paralysis

  • Loss of control over bodily functions

  • Pupils that are different sizes, or pupils that do not change when exposed to light and dark

  • Seizure or unexplained shaking or convulsions

  • Severe headache

  • Unconsciousness and coma

  • Vomiting

  • Weakness (loss of strength) or paralysis

Other symptoms that may occur along with forgetfulness

Forgetfulness may accompany other symptoms including:

    Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

    In some cases, forgetfulness may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

    • Difficulty speaking

    • Forgetfulness following head trauma

    • Severe headache

    • Sudden and obvious forgetfulness

    • Sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the body

    • Vision loss or vision changes

    Causes

    What causes forgetfulness?

    Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, though the exact reason for this is not known and is poorly understood. Forgetfulness along with aging can also be caused by a variety of diseases, such as vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Head trauma, vitamin deficiency, chronic disease, tumors of the brain, medication side effects, brain infections, stroke, and even anxiety or depression can all cause forgetfulness.

    Neurologic causes of forgetfulness

    Forgetfulness may be caused by a variety of neurologic conditions including:

    • Alzheimer’s disease

    • Huntington’s disease (inherited disease characterized by dementia)

    • Other forms of dementia

    • Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder leading to tremors and movement disorders)

    • Stroke

    • Vascular dementia

    Other causes of forgetfulness

    Forgetfulness can also be caused by other conditions including:

    • Anxiety

    • Binge alcohol consumption

    • Brain tumors

    • Chronic diseases

    • Depression

    • Head trauma

    • Medication side effects

    • Vitamin deficiency, especially vitamin B12

    • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (alcoholic dementia)

    Serious or life-threatening causes of forgetfulness

    In some cases, forgetfulness may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

    • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

    • Seizure disorder

    • Stroke

    • Trauma or head injury

    Questions for diagnosing the cause of forgetfulness

    To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your forgetfulness. It will be helpful to bring along a family member to help answer questions if you are experiencing forgetfulness. Questions could include:

    • When did you first notice your forgetfulness?

    • How many alcoholic drinks do you consume daily?

    • Do you have any other symptoms?

    • What medications are you taking?

    • Do you have a family history of dementia?

    • Are you having any trouble with normal daily tasks, such as managing your calendar?

    What are the potential complications of forgetfulness?

    Forgetfulness is usually not life-threatening by itself, but the underlying cause of forgetfulness can be serious. If your forgetfulness is mild and progressing slowly, it may be a normal part of aging. If your forgetfulness is sudden or progressing rapidly, it is important to determine the cause.

    Because forgetfulness can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

    • Difficulty caring for oneself

    • Difficulty communicating

    • Difficulty swallowing or eating

    • Difficulty taking medications

    • Getting lost

    • Impaired judgment

    • Spread of cancer

    • Spread of infection

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    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 7
    1. Dementia. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/seniors/common-older/124.html
    2. Dementia. PubMed Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001748/
    3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
    4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
    5. Petersen, RC (Ed). Mild Cognitive Impairment: Aging to Alzheimer's Disease. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
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