Memory loss is a symptom rather than a disease in its own right. It can be attributed to many different causes and the term can have many different meanings. The human brain is an incredibly complex machine and we still have a long way to go in understanding entirely how it works. In the words of celebrated British neuro-surgeon, Henry Marsh, in his book, ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’, the brain is truly the last great frontier of exploration.
In this article we look at some of the different causes and definitions of the concept of memory loss. First of all, let us look at what we understand memory loss to mean. The first meaning that springs to mind to most people these days is the loss of short term memory and recent events that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. This is the memory loss that is most often mentioned in the media and the one many of us fear, yet people with this disease often have very good memories of specific periods and incidents in the past. It is the ability to create new neurological pathways that is impaired by the disease in its early stages. Long term or permanent memory pathways are firmly established and are the last to go. We have all seen the viral videos of 80 year old Ted McDermott, the Alzheimer’s patient who has just launched a whole new singing career – he can remember the songs of his past even though he cannot remember things that are happening now. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or other form of dementia it is worth remembering that these connections with the past have great value and can provide a source of communication long after ordinary conversation is gone.
For people who have suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) as a result of an accident, war injury, stroke or repeated sporting injuries, the concept of memory loss has a different meaning. It is often the past that is lost to amnesia and they may well have no or few problems with creating new memories. They may not remember the events preceding the incident or even, in extreme cases, not know who they are but they are usually able to remember current everyday things like what they have had for breakfast. They may remember some things and not others or have short term memory problems and cognitive difficulties. While in most cases with rest they may fully recover their memories, if the damage is severe some memories may be permanently lost, depending upon which part of the brain has been affected. This can also be the case when someone has had an extreme emotional shock or trauma. In this case it is the subconscious that blocks off the memory of the stressful event as a protective mechanism. This is not always healthy and can have long term physical and mental health consequences. Skilled therapists can be a great help in this type of situation, enabling the person to access the suppressed memory, resolve the issue in a harmless way and move on with their lives.
People with a seizure disorder (epilepsy) may also have memory issues. They may not remember the events immediately preceding the seizure or the seizure itself. Many of the drugs used to control seizures may also slow neurological processes, making it harder to study or learn new things. Many people with epilepsy also experience a feeling of déjà vu, a sensation that they have been somewhere before or done something similar in the past, even though they haven’t. This is referred to as an aura as it can be a warning that a seizure is imminent, and yet at the same time can also be regarded as a memory issue in that it is a sense of remembering something that has not actually ever happened.
Celiac disease, lupus, Meniere’s disease and the hormonal changes associated with menopause can also be blamed for a phenomenon referred to as ‘brain fog’ where the person feels a sense of detachment and inability to focus or think clearly, causing them to be absent-minded and forgetful. This is not so much memory loss in the clinical sense referred to above but a difficulty in thinking clearly and focussing on what is relevant. Lists and written reminders can be a great help with this as not only does writing something down help to reinforce neural pathways to create memories but it also gives you something to refer back to later, hence the traditional shopping list.
Students often talk about memory loss within the context of studying for exams and not remembering crucial facts. This is not really memory loss in the neurological sense as it has little to do with losing established memories and more to do with problems with focussing in class, learning specific subjects which may or may not be of interest and understanding them so that they committed to memory. Not remembering a lesson may have more to do with being distracted and daydreaming during the class than forgetting what was taught. Our brains can also only absorb so much new material at any one time so last minute cramming does not build a good foundation of knowledge. There are many study techniques that can be used to help students learn and remember facts and these are covered in some of the other articles on this website.
As you can see from this article, the concept of memory loss is a broad one and open to many different interpretations and definitions. We hope that you find the one you are looking for and the answers to some of your questions on our website.