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London - You walk into the kitchen only to realise you haven’t a clue what you went there for. You can’t remember the name of the person you were introduced to a second ago. Or you find yourself increasingly talking about thingamabobs and whatchamacallits.
The standard explanation for this kind of memory loss is that your brain is simply overloaded with information - or you’re getting old. But occasionally sudden memory lapses - particularly in someone young - can be a result of something else that needs investigating, says Michael Gross, clinical director of Neurophysiology at the Clementine Churchill Hospital, Middlesex.
The obvious worry is dementia, an umbrella term for a set of symptoms, including impaired memory and reasoning, and a decline in language and other thinking skills.
However, there are many other causes of short-term memory loss - from not eating enough meat to long-haul travel. Here the experts detail some of the possible causes of your embarrassing memory lapses, and what you should do about them.
NOT ENOUGH STOMACH ACID
Vitamin B12, found in foods such as meats, fish and dairy products, is known for its important role in producing red blood cells, but it’s also thought to be linked to healthy memory.
A recent US study found that a lack of vitamin B12 was linked to memory and thinking problems. The theory is that B12 plays a role in protecting the myelin sheath - an insulating layer around nerves. Any damage to this and the nerve impulses slow down, affecting memory, among other things.
“Vitamin B12 deficiency occurs when the body fails to absorb enough of the vitamin though the small intestine,” says Dr Anton Emmanuel, a gastroenterologist at University College Hospital, London.
The nutrient is found in foods such as meat, fish and dairy products, so vegetarians need to be careful to ensure they are getting enough.
Other possible causes include pernicious anaemia (an autoimmune condition in which the body starts attacking the cells in the stomach, preventing the absorption of nutrients) and Crohn’s disease (a form of inflamatory bowel disease that also affects nutrient absorption).
A more common trigger is simply getting older - high levels of stomach acid are essential for the body to absorb the vitamin, but as we age our stomachs produce less.
This can lead to older people being mistakenly diagnosed with dementia when they’re actually suffering from B12 deficiency. This can be detected with a blood test - and taking a supplement will rectify the problem promptly.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
If you’re under 45 and forgetful, it might be worth having your blood pressure taken. In a study at the University of Alabama, those with high blood pressure were more likely to have problems with memory and thinking skills than those with normal blood pressure.
Indeed, the higher the reading, the more likely the problem. High blood pressure damages the inner linings of the arteries, ultimately making the artery walls thick and stiff.
“This narrowing of vessels reduces the amount of blood that flows to the brain, leading to the hippocampus, which plays a role in memory, not working properly,” says Fenella Kirkham, professor of paediatric neurology at University Hospitals Southampton.
The good news is it’s never too late to stop any decline. Exercising, eating healthily and losing weight will all improve your memory - and health.
If you’re tired, gaining weight, depressed and feel your memory isn’t what it was, it could be as a result of hypothyroidism, a condition that affects 15 in every 1,000 women.
The condition, which comes on gradually over months, occurs when the thyroid gland fails to produce a hormone known as thyroxine.
“This hormone plays a critical role in the amount of energy the body uses. If you don’t have enough, everything to do with the body slows down, including the brain’s function, having an effect on recall and memory,” says Richard Ross, professor of endocrinology at the University of Sheffield.
Causes of an underactive thyroid include auto-immune conditions such as Hashimoto’s disease, when the body starts attacking itself, a virus or sometimes medication.
A simple blood test is used to diagnose the condition, then hormone replacement tablets, called levothyroxine, will be prescribed and symptoms can improve rapidly.
While there are reports that these cholesterol-lowering pills improve the memory, a recent review of studies by the highly regarded Cochrane Library suggested the opposite.
Researchers examined data from 14 drugs trials involving 34,000 patients and found some patients taking the drugs had problems remembering recent events.
“Why some people have problems and others don’t may simply be genetic,” says Dr Gross.
However, what is known is that certain statins are more likely to cause problems than others.
The more fat-soluble the statin (which means it passes through cell membranes quickly and hangs around in the body’s fat continuing to have an effect), the greater propensity it has to cross the barrier that protects the brain from any poisons or toxins that may be in the blood. Simvastatin is the most fat-soluble of the statins.
Becoming forgetful at a certain age is a common complaint for women. A study at the University of California confirms that dwindling oestrogen levels seem to be a problem - particularly just before the menopause begins, a stage known as the perimenopause.
“Oestrogen may have a protective effect on the neurotransmitters - chemical messengers in the brain,” says Professor Ross.
Fortunately, the memory loss isn’t permanent. Taking oestrogen or progesterone hormones - used in hormone replacement therapy - during this time will help.
If you’re prone to migraines, you may be at risk of transient global amnesia, which is more common in the over-50s.
Essentially, your recall of recent events, up to the previous 24 hours or so, vanishes for several hours - you cannot remember where you are or how you got there, but you do remember who you are and the people you know well. “This amnesia is thought to occur as a result of a defect in a gene that can cause the spread of nerve impulses in the brain,” says Professor Kirkham.
“Along with triggering migraines, these may also temporarily paralyse the memory - though not necessarily at the same time.”
As with migraines, sudden immersion in cold or hot water, acute emotional distress or even sexual intercourse may set off these cortical-spreading depressions.
Fortunately, this is not a common problem and episodes tend to occur only once - memory should start to return within 24 hours.
Anyone who has flown long-haul knows only too well how shabby and fuzzy this can leave you feeling.
But a recent study at the University of California indicates that those memory and learning problems can continue long after your return to a regular 24-hour schedule.
“It’s thought the problems all arise from a lack of consistent sleep,” says Professor Kirkham.
“When you sleep, the hippocampus - the part of the brain that plays an intricate role in memory processing - spends its time filing memories. In other words, if you have less sleep than you need, memory problems can arise. As a result this also occurs in those with severe exhaustion and sleep problems, such as insomnia.”
Yet another addition to the list of unpleasant side-effects of chemotherapy is possible memory loss.
“Chemo brain” - a term used to describe the foggy thinking and memory lapses following chemo sessions - affects up to half of breast cancer patients.
It’s thought chemotherapy affects healthy brain cells, knocking their ability to function properly.
In a study at Stanford University in California, researchers discovered that breast cancer patients who had undergone the treatment had significantly less activity in parts of the brain responsible for memory and planning compared to those who were not treated.
A study at Rochester Medical Center and Harvard Medical School linked the widely used chemotherapy drug 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) to the deterioration of healthy brain cells.
“It is clear that in some patients, chemotherapy appears to trigger a degenerative condition in the central nervous system,” says the lead author Mark Noble. Generally the problem is reversible - memory will get better. However, problems have been known to last for up to ten years.
Taking aspirin - which maintains or increases blood flow to the brain cells, increasing their oxygen supply - might be a way of preventing or treating chemo brain. However, you should always consult your doctor before taking aspirin regularly.
Women frequently complain of “baby brain” during pregnancy.
In a new Australian study, researchers compared the memory performances of pregnant and non-pregnant women. Results showed the pregnant women had worse memories, particularly in tasks such as remembering new phone numbers or people”s names.
It’s thought lifestyle and the disruption and loss of routine associated with pregnancy may be to blame, says Julie Henry, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who conducted the research.
The joy of an anaesthetic is that you don’t remember a thing when you wake up - but, it seems, that memory loss could go on for longer than you’d expect.
Though it’s common to have problems remembering things a few days after the op, in postoperative cognitive decline, problems can last up to a year.
Indeed, in one study at the University Hospital of Florida, 40 per cent of older patients (over 60) had such post-op problems, and 12.7 per cent still suffered problems after three months. Other symptoms include problems with concentration and attention. The cause is unclear.
Gases used in anaesthetics may interfere with nerve impulses in the hippocampus.
“Surgery itself may also play a role in the memory loss, causing a profound inflammatory response throughout the body, including the brain,” says Professor Kirkham.
Aspirin, though controversial, may help improve symptoms by reducing inflammation. Otherwise, just wait for problems to improve.
the brain condition that causes seizures and affects around 500,000 Britons can be a contributory factor in memory loss.
During a seizure, electrical impulses in the brain are disrupted. If these attacks occur in certain areas of the brain - such as the hippocampus - they can cause problems that continue after the seizure has finished.
“Treated promptly and effectively, stopping the seizures with medication such as lamotrigine and levetiracetam, there should be no long-term effects,” says Professor Kirkham.
ARTHRITIS OR ASTHMA DRUGS
Corticosteroids are drugs taken by countless thousands for a variety of reasons from asthma to arthritis.
Long-term use in high doses, for six months or more, could lead to problems with recall, says Stephen Bazire, honorary professor at the University of East Anglia’s School of Pharmacy.
Corticosteroids can actually kill off brain cells, shrinking the brain and in particular the hippocampus.
“Switching steroids may help (there are nine different types) - though depending on how serious the memory loss is, your doctor may think the benefits outweigh the risks,” says Mr Bazire.
This kind of memory loss is rare.
Depression is linked to low levels of brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which relay messages.
This can also have an effect on the memory.
“Treating the depression successfully - whether that entails medication or talking therapies - should also help relieve any memory problems,” says Dr Gross.
The reason your recall of certain events may be somewhat fuzzy after a night drinking is because alcohol has a toxic effect on the hippocampus, an area in the brain which forms memories. In particular it affects chemical messengers, which relay information.
As the amount of alcohol consumed increases, so does the extent of short-term memory problems.
Meanwhile, long-term heavy drinking can lead to Korsakoff’s Syndrome - “where your short-term memory, particularly events arising after the onset of the condition - is completely shot”, says Dr Gross. “Learning new information may also be a problem.’
Stopping drinking can halt the course of the condition and around a quarter of people make a full recovery. - Daily Mail