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Signs and symptoms to look for...

Memory problems can vary in severity and cause different types of signs and symptoms. Common symptoms associated with memory loss include the following:

  • Confabulation (i.e., invented memories or real memories recalled out of sequence)
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Difficulty handling day-to-day affairs, such as balancing a checkbook, keeping appointments, or preparing meals
  • Forgetting people, facts, and events that were previously known well
  • Getting lost and misplacing items
  • Increased difficulty in following directions or taking a step-by-step approach to a familiar task
  • Irritability
  • Language difficulties, such as mixing up words or trouble remembering a word
  • Neurological disorders (e.g., tremors, uncoordinated movements)
  • Poor performance on memory tests
  • Repeating the same stories and/or questions

In people with memory problems, physicians often begin the diagnosis process by asking a number of questions about the patient's   family and personal medical history   and   history of symptoms.

These questions may include the following:

  • What types of information can the patient remember?
  • What information has been lost?
  • When did symptoms begin? Did they start gradually or suddenly? Are they getting worse?
  • Does the patient use alcohol or drugs?
  • Has the patient experienced a head injury, stroke, seizure, or traumatic event or had brain surgery?
  • Has the patient started to neglect personal care issues (e.g., healthy eating, bathing)?
  • Is there a family or personal history of depression or memory issues?
  • Have loved ones or caregivers noticed changes in the patient's personality, judgment, or awareness?

Diagnosing memory problems also may involve   imaging tests   (e.g., CT scan, MRI scan) to detect bleeding in the brain, stroke, brain damage, or tumors.   Laboratory tests   (e.g., blood tests) can be used to help diagnose vitamin deficiencies, infections, and thyroid problems, which can result in memory loss.

Other Tests
Additional screening tests can provide clues about the nature of memory issues. A   neurological exam   often is performed to check reflexes, eye movements, balance, and sensory functions.

In a  mental status exam, the physician asks the patient general knowledge questions (e.g., What is the date? What is the name of the president of the United States?) and assesses his or her ability to perform certain tasks. For example, the patient may be asked to draw a clock or copy a geometric design, remember a list of three words, or count backwards by sevens. Patients also may be asked to follow a series of three-part oral instructions or a written instruction.

Diagnosis also may involve a more complicated mental status exam performed by a   neuropsychologist   (psychologist who specializes in the study of brain behavior relationships). These exams are standardized—they are administered to each patient the same way so that comparisons can be made among a larger group of people. For example, a 74-year-old patient's results can be compared to those of other 74-year-olds with similar educational backgrounds. This helps the physician determine if the degree of cognitive decline is within normal limits. Other types of psychological testing can provide information about changes in personality, mood, language, attention, and perception.

For more information regarding memory loss problems, continue to the following pages:


Raymond Rybicki, MD

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your specific medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional. Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

The materials provided at this site are for informational purposes and are not intended for use as diagnosis or treatment of a health problem or as substitute for consulting a licensed medical professional. Check with a physician if you suspect you are ill, or believe you may have one of the problems discussed on our website, as many problems and diseases may be serious and even life-threatening. Also note while we frequently update our website's content, medical information changes rapidly.

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