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.
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 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
Difficulty breathing or not breathing
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
Unconsciousness and coma
Weakness (loss of strength) or paralysis
Other symptoms that may occur along with forgetfulness
Forgetfulness may accompany other symptoms including:
Impaired language and speaking
Pale or yellow skin
Tingling in the hands or feet
Vision loss or vision changes
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:
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:
Huntington’s disease (inherited disease characterized by dementia)
Other forms of dementia
Parkinson’s disease (brain disorder leading to tremors and movement disorders)
Other causes of forgetfulness
Forgetfulness can also be caused by other conditions including:
Binge alcohol consumption
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:
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 swallowing or eating
Difficulty taking medications
Spread of cancer
Spread of infection