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Causes of memory problems

Difficulties with memory may be caused by a range of physical and mental health problems.

What causes memory problems?

Many people find that their memory gets worse when they are unwell. This could be caused by physical illness, such as an infection or a long-term condition. It’s also common in people who are experiencing poor mental health and stress. 

Becoming more forgetful does not mean that you have dementia. Some people can remember things better than others. 

Many of the causes of memory problems can get better with the right support and treatment. If memory problems are affecting everyday life, consider speaking with a GP.

Health conditions that can affect memory

Memory loss can be a symptom of many health conditions, including dementia. Other common conditions that cause forgetfulness are:  

  • depression or anxiety
  • chest and urinary tract infections  
  • thyroid problems  
  • menopause
  • vitamin deficiencies, such as vitamin B12
  • long-term heart or kidney conditions
  • head injuries

If memory loss is caused by a treatable health condition, it can improve with the right support. Talking to a GP can help get the treatment to feel better.

Health conditions similar to dementia

There are conditions with symptoms similar to dementia, but have different causes and require different support.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

This condition causes minor problems with memory or thinking. Unlike dementia, the symptoms are not severe enough to cause problems with a person’s daily life. Many people with MCI can manage their symptoms and do not go on to develop dementia.

Functional cognitive disorder (FCD)

Unlike dementia, FCD is not caused by diseases that lead to a loss of brain cells. It’s therefore unlikely to keep getting worse. With the right support, the condition can be treated and improve over time.

Other causes of memory problems

Some memory problems can be a result of:

Stress

Being stressed or overwhelmed can make it harder to focus, think clearly, and learn new information. This can make it difficult to form new memories and remember them later.

Sleep problems

Not getting enough sleep makes it harder for the brain to process information from the day and store new memories.

Consuming too much alcohol

Drinking harmful levels of alcohol can lead to short-term difficulties remembering what has happened. Excessive drinking over a long period of time can lead to damage in the brain, known as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).

Medication side effects

Some medicines can significantly affect the ability to think and remember clearly. For example, they can cause confusion or drowsiness. Checking the leaflet that comes with a medicine can identify if it may be causing problems with memory or thinking. It can also be helpful to ask a GP or pharmacist.

Problems with taking in information

Sometimes it can appear that someone is not remembering things well, but the problem may be with the way they are taking in information.

Problems with attention

Being unable to focus on a task means not being able to keep information in the mind. It may seem like forgetting but is actually losing focus.

Problems with eyesight or hearing

Not being able to see or hear properly may result in not taking in full information from the world around. What may appear like forgetting something that was said, is actually not hearing it properly in the first place, so it will not have been stored in the memory.

Memory loss as a sign of dementia

Memory loss is a common early sign of dementia. This is because it is caused by diseases that damage areas of the brain involved in creating new memories and remembering older ones. 

How we support you

Get advice and information, whether you are worried about your memory, waiting for a referral or already diagnosed.

  • Call our support line to speak to a trained adviser
  • Visit our online forum to hear from people in the same situation

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Last reviewed: December 2023

Next review: December 2025