You meet a former colleague at a party, and can’t for the life of you place him. We’ve all encountered the embarrassment. But what if you forget to perform a daily task or can’t recall a route you frequently take? “The brain is programmed to filter out data and retain information that’s important. Often, we remember work-related tasks, but could forget domestic chores, which the brain slots as less important,” says Dr Annu Aggarwal, consultant neurologist and specialist in cognitive and behavioural neurology at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. “Which is why if you forget an office meeting or an urgent email, and it happens consistently, we need to investigate the cause of memory loss,” she adds.
Similarly, we are programmed to remember incidents that are high in drama. She explains it with this example. You are about to watch a movie. From the time you buy your ticket to being ushered to your seat, you cross a hundred people but remember none. If Priyanka Chopra happens to be among them, you are likely to remember her clothes and every detail of what she said. That you’d narrate the incident to friends means you recall the memory, making it stronger. This sort of detail, says Aggarwal, you’d be able to recollect decades later too.
While a high-on-stress work day is increasingly leading to younger people forgetting, experts say it should be a cause of concern only when accompanied by a change in other cognitive functions. “If you are finding it tough to pay attention or have problems with orientation, planning and arithmetic ability, it could be serious,” warns Dr Abhishek Srivastava, who has experience in neuro-rehabilitation. The above, he identifies as the result of a possible brain injury or even stroke, which can occur between 21 to 40 years of age.
While neurologists come with a checklist and elementary tests to diagnose the specific cause of memory loss, most rely on established pen and paper tests like the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. It tests your cognitive skills to measure the extent and nature of damage. Based on the score you bag in such a test, a neurologist will recommend further examination, including blood tests or an MRI scan. “Sometimes, brain tumours or brain lesions can also cause forgetfulness,” says Dr Vibhor Pardasani, a neurologist with Bombay Hospital.
Here are six top reasons for memory loss:
While research tells us that alcohol affects brain cells, neurologists agree that occasional and moderate consumption isn’t a problem. But regular drinking binges can be neuro-toxic. Excessive consumption of alcohol over time can cause shrinkage and permanent damage to the brain. “The way the liver functions has a direct impact on the brain because it filters toxins from the body. If you suffer from a liver disorder, a toxic build up leads to deposits in the brain. This could lead to memory loss,” explains Aggarwal.
Chronic sleep deprivation is another common physiological reason for memory loss and is experienced by professionals who work late and rise early. While most of us make up for a lack of sleep during the week by lying in late on weekends, the damage is done. “The memories we have formed during the day are consolidated at night when we sleep. When you don’t get adequate deep sleep, this function is disrupted and can directly affect short-term and long-term memory,” says Aggarwal.
Often, memory loss experienced by 30 to 40 year olds is put down to vitamin deficiency. “Lack of vitamins, specifically B12, can result in short-term memory loss. Sometimes, the body is unable to absorb the vitamin, in which case an endoscopy must be performed for further investigation,” says Srivastava, who has come across several vegetarians battling the deficiency due to their diet. Stock up on mackerel, silken tofu, eggs, skim milk, Swiss cheese and fortified cereals, suggest nutritionists.
Pseudo dementia is a form of memory loss where a patient experiences short-term memory loss as a result of depression. It’s likely that the patient isn’t aware of it but it’s evident to those around. “In such a case, the patient is anxious and the memory loss is directly linked to depression. They are known to respond to anti-depressants, and memory powers can be restored just by addressing depression,” says Pardasani.
Hyperthyroidism is a common cause for forgetting and is diagnosed with a blood test. When memory loss is accompanied by slowing down of activities, fatigue and hair loss, doctors recommend running a test for hyperthyroidism. It refers to a condition where the thyroid gland lodged in the front of the neck produces excessive amounts of a hormone that controls metabolism, breathing, heart rate, weight and body temperature. While the condition is linked to a range of symptoms (nervousness, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, hand tremor, and problems sleeping), some patients could display only a few, and at times, none. In such cases, the diagnosis is confirmed by examining a patient’s medical history and lab tests.
When someone in their 30s approaches Pardasani, complaining of turning forgetful, he investigates the impact of stress on the patients. “Stressassociated loss of concentration can be the result of juggling multiple tasks in the day, the demands of urban life, and pressure to provide for yourself and family,” he says. Rest becomes inadequate, food habits are irregular, skipping breakfast is common and having dinner late into the night is a norm. With the body losing out on essential nutrients, memory can be affected. Stress-linked memory loss is usually corrected through medication, counselling and a correction in lifestyle.
When you should worry
1. If you can’t recollect recent events.
2. If you find it difficult to perform familiar tasks, like cooking.
3. You are disoriented about time and place.
4. You face difficulty in recognising faces and familiar surroundings.
5. You misplace objects.
6. When loss of memory is accompanied by the inability to plan, concentrate, lethargy, sleepiness, inability to function, fatigue and hair loss.
7. When your arithmetic ability is blunted.