The human brain is one of the most complicated entities in the known universe. The roughly 86 billion neurons in the brain can achieve spectacular and awe-inspiring feats. With that, the more we learn about the brain, the more questions exist. Memory, in particular, is one of the trickiest parts of the brain and can be difficult to study.
The scientific community agrees that the occasional brain fart is a completely normal part of daily life. These little memory lapses are generally nothing more than routine slip-ups.
However, having constant or severe memory lapses can sometimes be a sign of an underlying neurological issue. Knowing the difference is important, as early detection is essential for treating cognitive decline.
Here’s what to know about memory, signs that it may be time for a neuro consult, and some things you can do to help improve your day-to-day cognitive function.
How Does Memory Work?
Memory comprises collecting, interpreting, storing, and retrieving information. There are three stages involved in the creation of a memory:
Stage 1: Sensory Register
The first stage occurs whenever the brain obtains information from the environment. The sensory register stage usually lasts only a few seconds. The brain will collect information passively via sights (iconic), sounds (echoic), and smells (olfactory).
Stage 2: Short-Term Memory
The second stage occurs whenever the brain temporarily holds simple information obtained during the sensory register. Typically, this information is quickly forgotten as soon as it’s no longer needed. For more important information, working memory becomes involved. The information is usually stored temporarily but for much longer than short-term memory. However, if the information is deemed emotionally important, it will continue to the next stage.
Stage 3: Long-Term Memory
The final stage occurs whenever an important memory is “permanently” stored in the brain. The hippocampus retrieves information from the working memory when long-term memory is formed. The neurons and synapses that make up the brain rewire to store the memory's information. These memories are stored indefinitely and can last anywhere from a day to a year to a decade to a lifetime.
What Negatively Affects Memory?
The concept of memory is extremely granular, and many factors can negatively impact it. Some of these factors, such as age, are an unavoidable part of life, while others, like excessive alcohol consumption, can be addressed.
Here are a few factors that are normal causes of memory loss:
The process of normal aging results in various changes throughout the body and brain. Getting older will often result in the loss of brain cells essential to encoding and retrieving the information associated with memories. Age isn’t typically a major factor until someone reaches their 50s or 60s. Even then, it can be unpredictable and affect each individual differently.
Foods high in added sugar, refined carbs, and unhealthy fats, as well as foods that are heavily processed and contain a lot of preservatives can result in feelings of brain fog and mental fatigue. Following an inflammatory diet for a sustained period can reduce the energy production in brain cells and inhibit the production of the neurochemicals needed to store memories.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that slows down various parts of the brain. The hippocampus (where memories are stored) is especially affected by alcohol toxicity. As a result, drinking alcohol can hinder the creation of new long-term memories.
Rapidly jumping between multiple activities can severely limit your ability to retain new information. Short-term, long-term, and working memory can all be disrupted by frequently switching the focal point of your attention. The brain may struggle to record the essential information needed to create new memories properly.
Getting the proper amount of sleep is essential to overall brain health and is extremely important for memory. The brain uses periods of sleep as an opportunity to build, strengthen, and retain newly created memories. Not getting enough sleep both in quantity and quality can weaken the process of memory creation.
Physical exercise is very important for physical health, but it’s also essential for brain health. Exercise can help maintain a healthy supply of blood flow to the brain. Blood carries oxygen and essential nutrients that the brain needs to function properly and reduce deterioration.
You can add memory disruption to the long list of reasons you may want to avoid smoking. Cigarette smoke can cause thinning in the cerebral cortex (the outer layer that lies on top of the cerebrum). The cerebral cortex is heavily involved with thinking, learning, reasoning, problems solving, emotional responses, consciousness, and of course, memory.
Certain medications can have negative side effects on various brain functions, including memory impairment. Antidepressants, cholesterol medications, painkillers, blood pressure medications, and antiseizure drugs are a few examples of drugs that can cause memory loss. Recreational drugs can also result in memory lapses and impaired memory creation.
Late Night Snacking
All humans have an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm that helps to regulate internal biological processes. These clocks are typically based on a 24-hour cycle and determine when we go to sleep, wake up, and eat. Snacking late at night can disrupt the circadian rhythm, overall negatively affecting regulatory processes in the hippocampus.
The thyroid gland is located in the neck and creates hormones that play a role in growth and development. Hypothyroidism (the lack of thyroid hormones) can cause various cognitive issues, while hyperthyroidism (an excess of thyroid hormones) can make it difficult to concentrate. Either condition can limit the brain’s ability to retain information and create long-term memories.
Stress, anxiety, and depression can negatively impact brain chemistry, function, and overall health. Stress and anxiety result in elevated levels of cortisol, which increases inflammation in the brain. Inflammation can damage neurons throughout the brain and limit the creation of memories. Depression can limit attention span and prevent the brain from thinking clearly. Unfortunately, it’s common for individuals experiencing depression to frequently experience bouts of confusion and forgetfulness.
Any injury that can hurt the brain can result in damage to the limbic system. The limbic system controls your emotions and memories via the hypothalamus and hippocampus. A head injury doesn’t have to result in a loss of consciousness to significantly damage the limbic system.
Cell phones and other technological devices produce electromagnetic fields (EMF). Prolonged exposure to EMF is being investigated for possibly disrupting the chemicals in the brain and inducing changes to nerve cells in the central nervous system. As a result, memory, learning, emotional regulation, and stress management may all be disrupted.
The blue light that’s emitted by computing devices can disrupt signals in the brain responsible for releasing melatonin. It can be more difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or achieve REM sleep. Since sleep is so important to creating memories, this can harm memory function.
When Do You Know Memory Problems Are Severe?
The brain is far from perfect, and memory can be unreliable. It’s perfectly normal to occasionally forget someone’s name only to remember it later, forget why you walked into a room, or misplace your car keys.
However, some telltale signs of dementia may indicate that the memory lapses you’re experiencing might not be your run-of-the-mill brain fog.
Self-diagnosis of cognitive decline is notoriously difficult. It’s unlikely that someone experiencing such a condition would fully realize it alone.
It can be a good idea to visit a doctor if you experience the following symptoms or have had loved ones, caregivers, or family members tell you they’ve occurred:
- You’ve experienced a memory lapse that has left you frightened.
- You’ve had other people express concern about your memory.
- You repeat questions often because you don’t remember the answer the first time.
- You’ve gotten lost in places you know and have spent a lot of time in.
- You’re struggling to follow simple or familiar directions that you’ve followed before.
- You often become confused with the time, people, or locations involved with your life.
- You’re struggling to take proper care of yourself in terms of maintaining personal hygiene, eating properly, and avoiding dangerous or risky behavior.
- You frequently lose track of time in terms of day of the week, month, or season.
- You're having a hard time maintaining a conversation.
- You’re forgetting commonly used words or mixing them up.
- You keep putting items in bizarre places where they don’t belong.
- You’re experiencing wild and sudden mood swings or behavioral changes.
- You have difficulty following the plot of movies, television shows, or books.
- You constantly repeat the same stories during conversations with people that have previously heard them.
- You’re misplacing things so often that you wonder if someone is stealing from you.
- You buy items at the store despite already having them at home.
- You struggle to keep up with daily responsibilities like cooking dinner or paying bills.
- You’ve used notes, lists, and calendars to help, but they haven’t improved things.
- You’ve become more restless and impatient or quiet and withdrawn.
- You sometimes forget to eat because you can’t remember if you already ate or not.
- You have difficulty problem-solving and making simple decisions (such as what clothes to wear).
What Tests Identify Memory Loss?
Visiting a healthcare provider as soon as possible is a good idea if any of the abovementioned situations apply to you. When you do, the doctor can perform a series of tests to help identify the root cause of your memory lapses and cognitive problems. The recommended treatment will depend on the outcome of the following tests.
You’ll need to provide the doctor with your medical and psychiatric history. You will want to disclose any current or past issues, as several things could cause your symptoms. Your doctor will need to know about any genetic risk factors or lifestyle factors that could increase your risk of dementia.
The doctor will ask some of the following questions to gather as much relevant information as possible:
- What kind of symptoms are you experiencing?
- When did you first start experiencing these symptoms?
- How often do you experience memory issues?
- Have these issues gotten worse over time?
- What medications are you currently taking?
- Have you recently started taking a new medication?
- Which tasks do you struggle with most often?
- Have you tried to treat your memory problems at home?
- Do you drink alcohol or take recreational drugs? How much and how often?
- Have you recently experienced a head injury?
- Do you frequently experience feelings of depression or anxiety?
- Have you ever had mental health problems?
- Have you been sick recently?
- What are the contents of your diet?
- Do you have any pre-existing medical conditions?
- Has there recently been a stressful or traumatic event in your life?
Physical, Neurological, and Cognitive Exams
The doctor will likely conduct a brief physical exam. You can expect to have your blood pressure, pulse, weight, and temperature checked. The doctor will also probably listen to your heart and lungs.
It’s a bit of a long shot, but it’s possible that a routine physical can shed some light on why you’re experiencing memory issues.
After the physical examination, the doctor will likely conduct a neurological exam. The tests will focus on your reflexes, coordination, eye movement, speech, and sensation.
These tests are designed to determine if someone might be experiencing impaired brain function from a brain disorder. Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, stroke, brain disease, tumors, and fluid buildup in the brain can all result in memory issues.
The last test usually involves a series of questions that can help test everyday mental skills. The Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) is one of the most commonly used tests.
The score that you receive on the MMSE can indicate the existence and severity of dementia:
- The maximum score is 30 points.
- A score of 25 to 29 points is considered normal.
- A score of 20 to 24 suggests mild dementia.
- A score of 13 to 19 suggests moderate dementia.
- A score of 12 or lower suggests severe dementia.
Depending on the results of these tests, a doctor might suggest further testing for potential dementia.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computer tomography (CT) scans can help provide structural brain imaging. These tests are recommended when a doctor believes the memory issues are related to structural damage. The images provided by these scans can display tumors, evidence of strokes, head trauma damage, or fluid build-ups in the brain.
Cerebrospinal Fluid Tests
Adults have roughly one pint of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes, cushions, and protects the brain and spinal cord. A doctor can sample CSF by performing a procedure called a spinal tap.
Research has shown that the early stages of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia can cause changes in the CSF. In particular, these tests can help identify tau proteins and beta-amyloids that form hazardous deposits in the brain.
How Can You Improve Memory?
Depending on the root cause, memory problems can be reversible. Living a healthy lifestyle by implementing dietary changes, switching medications (under the supervision and advice of a medical professional), drinking less alcohol, and getting more sleep can sometimes be enough to treat memory problems.
Unfortunately, there are no known cures for neurodegenerative medical conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or Huntington's. Detecting early signscan provide more options for treatment, but there are no definitive cures.
Avoiding some of the things above that affect your memory can help. Additionally, you can try out a few of these tips, as they might be able to support improved memory function:
Perform Daily Brain Exercises
Performing activities that require you to focus and think can provide mental stimulation. Doing jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, or learning a new language are a few brain exercises that can improve your memory.
Improve Your Diet
Eating foods with essential nutrients like vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids can support your brain health. You might want to avoid the inflammatory foods mentioned earlier and replace them with fish, whole grains, veggies, fruits, beans, and nuts. You can also consult a neurologist about a pro-memory dietary supplement regimen.
Get More Physical Exercise
You don’t have to become a bodybuilder for your brain to experience the benefits of exercise. Adding simple exercises to your daily activities can boost your brain health and improve your memory.
Don’t Forget To Take Good Care of Your Brain
The occasional memory lapse is often nothing to be concerned about. It’s common for your brain to slip up and go blank. However, if you’re constantly experiencing these issues or they’re getting more severe, it could signify something more serious.
If you’re concerned, you can consult with a doctor, and they can perform tests to determine the likely cause of your memory lapses.
Regardless of what the tests might conclude and how severe symptoms are, taking care of your brain health overall can support your memory and overall well-being.
It might not sound like a lot, but improving your diet, getting more exercise, and experiencing mental stimulation can greatly improve your brain health.
A healthier brain can support a stronger memory and reduce the odds of developing serious cognitive decline later in life.
For more tips on supporting brain health and wellness, explore the MOSH Pit blog here!
CT Scan vs. MRI: What’s the Difference? And How Do Doctors Choose Which Imaging Method to Use? | MSKCC
Mini‐Mental State Examination (MMSE) for the Detection of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias in People with Mild Cognitive Impairment | NCBI Bookshelf
Neurological Exam | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Medical Tests for Diagnosing Alzheimer's & Dementia | alz.org
Know The 10 Signs | Alzheimer's Association
How Blue Light Affects Sleep | Sleep Foundation
Possible Effects of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Field Exposure on Central Nerve System | PMC
Pathophysiology and Treatment of Memory Dysfunction after Traumatic Brain Injury | PMC
Lumbar Puncture (Spinal Tap) | Mayo Clinic
How Is Alzheimer's Disease Treated? | National Institute on Aging
Mechanisms of Memory Disruption in Depression | PMC
The Relationship Between Anxiety and Memory Loss | Rivier Academics
Psychiatric and Cognitive Manifestations of Hypothyroidism | PMC
Meal Timing Regulates the Human Circadian System | PMC
Caution! These 10 Drugs Can Cause Memory Loss | AARP
Smoking Thins Vital Part of Brain | The Neuro | McGill University
Why Multitasking Does More Harm Than Good | Discover Magazine
Effect of Alcohol on Hippocampal-Dependent Plasticity and Behavior: Role of Glutamatergic Synaptic Transmission | Frontiers
What we Need to Know About Age RelatedMemory Loss | PMC
How Memories Are Made: Stages of Memory Formation | Lesley University