When do I see a doctor about "normal" memory issues?
February 14, 2020 4:34 PM   Subscribe

My memory is bad, especially for events and conversations. Bad enough that it interferes with my life. It feels like it's getting worse, though I'm only 38. When should I start worrying and what should I do about it?

Most of my memory problems are "ordinary." I get home from a movie and I've forgotten big parts of the plot. I encounter an idea and a few days later I'm asking myself "Did someone tell me this or did I think of it myself?" Someone asks me how my weekend was and I can't remember what I did, though usually I can puzzle it out if I think for a while.

But some are frightening. I had a stressful daylong work retreat a week ago in which I put my foot down on some issues. I had the impression that I had support from other coworkers. I no longer remember what any of those expressions of support were, or who they might have come from. Now, everyone's processing and talking about what happened, and I don't know how to participate in those conversations when crucial parts of what happened are just gone from my brain.

I'm scared. Friends mostly tell me I'm overreacting and these problems are normal. I don't want to be a hypochondriac. This isn't new, I've always been "absent-minded" or "a space cadet." But it feels like it's getting very slowly worse.

At what point do I go to a doctor? What kind of doctor do I go to? Can I expect any help? All the medical causes of memory loss I know of are permanent and terrifying -- would there even be any point in getting a diagnosis?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (35 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You’re not alone I could have written this ask. I wish I had an answer.
posted by one4themoment at 4:38 PM on February 14 [4 favorites]

Hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone) can cause memory problems. Testing for this involves a simple blood draw, and the treatment consists of taking a pill every day. I'm sure that there are other possible causes for memory problems (causes that aren't horrible and are easily treatable). Start by seeing your primary care doctor.
posted by alex1965 at 4:39 PM on February 14 [8 favorites]

What you are describing is a normal part of getting older, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth addressing.

You should start with your GP, and depending on your level of worry maybe also talk to a neurologist. If nothing else they will both have seen the symptoms before and can give you some context to work with.

The good thing is that memory problems can sometimes be dealt with as if remembering is just an atrophied muscle. In my case my short term memory had demonstrably gone to pot but recovered nicely just from disciplined use. YMMV of course.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:49 PM on February 14

I agree with the suggestion upthread to have your thyroid checked. That is one of the first things that goes when my levels are off. When my thyroid was recently very badly under medicated, I was having difficulty reliably counting. To fifty. My meds were adjusted and things got better quick.

Tell Me No Lies: what was your program? I have Said thyroid issues (see above), a familial history of Alzheimer’s, and I am sure the OP would appreciate a description of your memory practice— as would I!
posted by oflinkey at 5:12 PM on February 14 [1 favorite]

Growing older isn't 39. The only way you will know is to see some doctors. You may have to be insistent, as many doctors will shrug it off as not an important symptom.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:15 PM on February 14 [17 favorites]

Hard agree with "38 isn't old." This is not when most people start to experience age-related memory loss. See someone -- start with your GP. If they don't take you seriously, find someone else.
posted by tzikeh at 5:26 PM on February 14 [8 favorites]

As a fellow 38 (almost 39) year old, I second that this is not part of "growing older" yet. Occasional brain farts? Sure, but this sounds like more. I think this is worth talking to your doctor. When are you due for your next physical?
posted by acidnova at 5:27 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]

Do you have trauma in your background? Could you be dissociating involuntarily?
posted by rglass at 5:33 PM on February 14 [9 favorites]

Coming here to say what rglass said. My PTSDhad/has a huge dissociative components (people did not realize how much I was missing and struggling to recall especially under stress) but even normal day to day stuff to. Long story super short: My memory issues resolved with alot of therapy from people who work with people who do this.
posted by AlexiaSky at 5:38 PM on February 14 [7 favorites]

Definitely speak with your doctor. A number of things can cause fairly significant memory issues, including thyroid, lots of different medications, mental health issues (e.g. depression), PTSD, stress.... but it is good to check things like young-onset dementia off the list. Think about whether you have had any non-memory related changes lately in mood, speech, or behaviour, or any other physical symptoms as this will be helpful for trying to figure out what might be going on.
posted by DTMFA at 5:49 PM on February 14

for me this was related to anemia, but i had a ton of other symptoms. bloodwork from a GP can't hurt either way, presumably.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:10 PM on February 14 [3 favorites]

Major stress shrinks the hippocampus. If you are having a miserable hard time at life your memory for facts will shut down and your memory for feelings - aversive ones, mainly, will up its game. When you see something nasty in the woodshed you don't need to remember what you saw, you just need to feel a strong urge to not go down to the bottom of the garden where the woodshed is. And it help protect you actually, because if you have fewer memories of the bad stuff you are less likely for your memory to keep re-traumatizing you.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:13 PM on February 14 [4 favorites]

Are you female? I started developing huge memory problems ie, I’d have a headache, take out a packet of paracetamol, be staring at them and literally not remember if I just took two or if I hadn’t taken them yet. So I’d take two (more?) and not know if I’d just double dosed myself or not. Yeah, dangerous. Fish literally have longer short term memories than I did. I went to the dr and told her I thought I had early onset dementia, she ran some tests and it came back that I was severely anaemic from years of heavy periods. Which can cause memory loss - who knew! One iron infusion and two weeks later and I was a new person. Seriously, it was like a miracle. So, there’s that.
posted by Jubey at 6:36 PM on February 14 [5 favorites]

I wrote...
What you are describing is a normal part of getting older...

There seems to be some disagreement over what age you should expect memory issues. Ironically, being far past whatever age that is I can’t remember when it actually started for me.

Tell Me No Lies: what was your program?

My issue was short term memory, illustrated by the fact that I was unable to copy a five digit zip code from the computer screen to a piece of paper in one go. I mentioned it as a possible symptom to my neurologist, who told me it was unlikely to be related to my main issue but that I should do the following twice a day for two weeks:

1) Take a list of five random numbers (I used phone numbers grabbed off the web), read each one and then write it down on a piece of paper without looking at the original.
2) Read a short paragraph (five or six sentences) and write it down without looking at the original.

The improvement was pretty dramatic.

However, this was short term memory. I have a niece with neurological issues who has been doing therapy for medium/long term memory issues for years and I know her regimen is a lot more complex than that.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:39 PM on February 14 [8 favorites]

Lack of sleep can cause memory issues.

Stress can cause memory issues.

Ibuprofen [Advil, Motrin, Nurofen] can cause memory issues.
posted by Murderbot at 7:43 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]

Also: untreated sleep apnoea can cause memory issues. Ask your Dr if you need a sleep study - you may need a CPAP machine.
posted by Murderbot at 7:43 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]

Lyrica [pregabalin] prescribed for chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety, can cause MASSIVE memory issues.
posted by Murderbot at 7:47 PM on February 14

I was gonna say apnea. But you need to get to a doctor who takes you seriously.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:57 PM on February 14

Lots of good suggestions above. I just wanted to add that allergies can also cause memory problems.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:20 PM on February 14

As others have said, trauma and depression/anxiety can cause this, as can anaemia. I've been anaemic and low on B12 recently and the cognitive impact has been surprising, particularly confusion/memory/brain fog.
posted by terretu at 12:29 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

Vitamin D as well - I was low despite supplementation and the improvement in concentration (and others, like immunity) is dramatic.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:45 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I forget stuff easily when stressed or sleep-deprived. And def. an undiagnosed underactive thyroid will mess your memory right up. I'd legit do stuff like leave my bike in the wrong place and thing it got stolen the next day. I'd hit up a doc if it really interferes with the daily!!
posted by speakeasy at 2:40 AM on February 15

I read this because I'm in my forties and have a hard time remembering what people tell me during small talk. Like, their names, their ages, where they live, what they do...all small talk stuff. It really interferes with my work.

However, even what you describe as normal is NOT normal in my opinion and it sounds like the time to get this looked at is now.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:41 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

what you describe as normal is NOT normal in my opinion

2nding that wholeheartedly - I am a bit older than you but this is not normal for me or my friends. I can’t remember names or streets but I can absolutely remember the plot of the film I have just seen (as long as I managed to stay awake all the way...), I can remember what I did last weekend or even a month ago (I might take a second to recall the exact day or weekend but I remember the event as such). And I would absolutely expect to remember an intense work thing like that.

Please go and find out what’s going on. Memory issues may be a normal symptom for the various conditions people mention but it doesn’t sound within the normal range without underlying causes.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:14 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I am a neurologist; I am not your neurologist. Hopefully you will not need a neurologist for many years to come!

38 would be on a very very young side for a degenerative dementia, like Alzheimer's disease or frontotemporal dementia. Most people who develop a degenerative dementia before age 65 have a strong family history; if I hear of someone in their 30s or 40s, it's because they have inherited a rare gene (when I say rare, I mean ~5 people in 100,000).

There are many medical conditions that cause inattention like you are describing. Others have listed them above. Your PCP can do a physical and order blood tests to check for these; these are just about 100% reversible, so neither permanent nor terrifying. Please see your PCP! If you're worried that they are blowing you off, ask for neuropsychological testing. There are some brief in-office tests, and there are more detailed dedicated batteries that take a couple hours to a half-day to do.

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like more information.
posted by basalganglia at 6:04 AM on February 15 [23 favorites]

I have this. I think some of the problem is that I'm not fully listening in the first place. I might be distracted at the movie and miss some of the plot. I don't care enough to pay attention or my mind is wandering. I think in order to remember something it has to be important to you and you have to be mindful enough to pay attention and let the information sink in order to recall it later. You can't recall something that was never there.

I can comprehend plenty and understand what I'm reading, seeing, and hearing. I can't remember most of it later. My father has this. He's prone to ruminating and being distracted so he's not absorbing in the first place. He has had significant trauma in his life. I have some trauma as well. I am not a mental health professional or neuroscientist but I think trauma in childhood affects memory and how the brain processes memory. My mother has this to some extent. It might be hereditary. We are all a little spacey.

I have consumed Diet Coke on a near daily basis for decades. Some say aspartame can impair memory.
posted by loveandhappiness at 7:05 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I'm a toxicologist/epidemiologist who works in clinical settings. The answer to any question that begins, "When should I start seeing a doctor about _______" is "Now." If you want it on their radar, you have to put it on their radar. Go in, have a consult, they'll make some notes (and maybe order some tests) so that they can compare results over time. Easy peasy.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:53 AM on February 15 [3 favorites]

You could see a psychologist who specializes in neurometrics, who can give you an exact picture of how different parts of your memory are functioning compared to other 39 year olds, and also document precisely any decline that occurs while you are in their care. This documentation may help make a family doctor take you seriously and refer you on to a neurologist if there are any clinically significant results from the neurometricist.

As other users have said, memory problems can be caused by a whole host of fairly unscary things, so don't let your mind go right to scary possible diagnoses. Do get it checked out, though. A work up by your family doctor might be a good start. If they are reluctant, perhaps come back with evidence from a psychologist.
posted by unstrungharp at 8:04 AM on February 15 [1 favorite]

I’ve had this concern for myself at 44. Haven’t gone to see anyone about this issue, but two suspects that apply to my situation and may apply to yours:

Do you have a significant other that does a lot of social / calendrical labor for you?

Do you use podcasts or social media in intellectually unstimulating situations like lines, commutes, and dishwashing?

I wonder if these are culprits for me, and maybe for you. The former tends to remove me from a lot of decisions that require active use of a memory, and the latter deprives me of time to review my thoughts and events of the day. I hope this helps.
posted by condour75 at 3:13 PM on February 15 [2 favorites]

FOR SURE get your B12 tested. Low B12 can really REALLY mess up your memory. (Ditto thyroid! I have both! But I'm fine when my levels are okay.)

I also do agree that -- this is my minor tinfoil hat moment -- modern society's dependence on our phones to remember EVERYTHING for us (where that restaurant is, how to drive from Point A to Point B, that person's phone number) is really shrinking the memory muscle in our brain. In addition to seeing the doctor, my advice is that you try to exercise your day-to-day memory muscle.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:11 PM on February 16

Just wanted to reiterate what others have said that memory can be influenced by medications, stress, chronic health conditions. Allergies were mentioned above and if you happen to take Benadryl frequently, you may want to talk to a doctor about that in relation to your memory. I also don’t know how great your hearing is, but it might be helpful to get your hearing tested.
I wish you find some comfort and hope for improvement in this helpful thread. Worrying about memory loss is especially terrifying, and I hope you are able to find some answers.
posted by areaperson at 2:00 PM on February 16

I had a severe problem with short term memory and it got bad to the point I couldn't follow conversations, movies, and I eventually could no longer work as a programmer. Turned out it was from too many meds with anticholinergic effects. Here is a list of effects with meds at the bottom; it's aimed at the elderly but it's a good list, and there are more complete lists out there. Benadryl and a particular muscle relaxer and an anti-diarrheal was what did it to me. It doesn't happen right away but the effects continue to increase with time. If you're taking any of these meds, you might want to look for alternatives without anticholinergic effects.
posted by Katravax at 6:16 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

I also have severe memory issues that got significantly worse very suddenly about a year ago. My primary care doctor blew me off about it for a long time; upon being further pressed, he ordered some basic blood tests like those mentioned above. They came back normal and he blew me off again until finally giving in and sending me to a neurologist.

The neurologist had me get an EEG and a brain MRI. Since they were normal, he said there wasn't really anything he could do for me.

So my experience was unsatisfying and I've almost accidentally set my house on fire a few times now, but it IS worth doing because there are some things that are easy to test for and to treat.
posted by metasarah at 11:12 AM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Sounds like it could be perimenopause.
posted by kirst27 at 5:49 PM on February 19

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