Read about what can cause memory loss and learn steps you can take to manage it.
Amnesia refers to the loss of memories, including facts, information and experiences. Movies and television tend to depict amnesia as forgetting your identity, but that's not generally the case in real life.
Instead, people with amnesia — also called amnestic syndrome — usually know who they are. But they may have trouble learning new information and forming new memories.
Amnesia can be caused by damage to areas of the brain that are vital for memory processing. Unlike a temporary episode of memory loss, called transient global amnesia, amnesia can be permanent.
There's no specific treatment for amnesia, but treatment can be directed at the underlying cause. Tips to help enhance memory and get support can help people with amnesia and their families cope.
The two main features of amnesia are:
Most people with amnesia have problems with short-term memory, so they can't retain new information. Recent memories are most likely to be lost. More-remote or deeply ingrained memories may be spared.
For example, people may recall experiences from childhood or know the names of past presidents. But they may not be able to name the current president, know the month or remember what they ate for breakfast.
Isolated memory loss doesn't affect a person's intelligence, general knowledge, awareness or attention span. It also doesn't affect judgment, personality or identity. People with amnesia usually can understand written and spoken words and can learn skills such as bike riding or piano playing. They may understand they have a memory disorder.
Amnesia isn't the same as dementia. Dementia often includes memory loss but also involves other problems with thinking that lead to a decline in daily functioning. These problems include having trouble with language, judgment and visual-spatial skills.
Memory loss also is a common symptom of mild cognitive impairment. This disorder involves memory and other cognitive problems that aren't as severe as those experienced in dementia.
Depending on the cause of the amnesia, other symptoms may include:
Anyone who experiences unexplained memory loss, head injury or confusion requires immediate medical attention.
People with amnesia may not know where they are or be able to seek medical care. If someone you know has symptoms of amnesia, help the person get medical attention.
Typical memory function involves many parts of the brain. Any disease or injury that affects the brain can affect memory.
Amnesia can result from damage to brain structures that form the limbic system, which controls emotions and memories. They include the thalamus found deep within the center of the brain. They also include the hippocampal formations found within the temporal lobes of the brain.
Amnesia caused by brain injury or damage is known as neurological amnesia. Possible causes of neurological amnesia include:
Head injuries that cause a concussion, whether from a car accident or sports, can lead to confusion and problems remembering new information. This is especially common in the early stages of recovery. Mild head injuries typically don't cause lasting amnesia, but more-severe head injuries may cause permanent amnesia.
Another rare type of amnesia, called dissociative amnesia, stems from emotional shock or trauma. It can result from being the victim of a violent crime or experiencing other trauma. In this disorder, people may lose personal memories and information about their lives. The memory loss is usually brief.
The chance of developing amnesia might increase if you've experienced:
Amnesia varies in severity and scope. But even mild amnesia takes a toll on daily activities and quality of life. The syndrome can cause problems at work, at school and in social settings.
It may not be possible to recover lost memories. Some people with severe memory problems need to be supervised or need to live in a care facility.
Damage to the brain can be a root cause of amnesia. It's important to take steps to minimize your chance of a brain injury. For example:
A comprehensive evaluation is needed to diagnose amnesia. It can rule out other possible causes of memory loss such as Alzheimer's disease, other forms of dementia, depression or a brain tumor.
The evaluation starts with a detailed medical history. Because the person with memory loss may not be able to provide thorough information, a family member, friend or another caregiver usually provides information.
Your health care provider may ask you several questions to help understand the memory loss. Issues that might be addressed include:
The physical exam may include a neurological exam to check reflexes, sensory function and balance.
The exam typically includes tests related to thinking, judgment, and recent and long-term memory. You'll be asked about your knowledge of general information — such as the name of the current president — as well as personal information and past events. You may be asked to repeat a list of words.
The memory evaluation can help determine the extent of memory loss and provide insights about what kind of help you may need.
Your health care provider also may order:
Treatment for amnesia focuses on strategies to help make up for the memory problem. It's also important to address underlying diseases causing the amnesia.
You may work with an occupational therapist to learn new information and replace what was lost. Or you may use intact memories as a basis for taking in new information.
Memory training also may include strategies for organizing information so that it's easier to remember and for better understanding when talking to others.
Many people with amnesia find it helpful to use smart technology, such as a smartphone or a hand-held tablet. With some training and practice, even people with severe amnesia can use electronic organizers to help with day-to-day tasks. For example, smartphones can be programmed to remind them about important events or to take medicines.
Low-tech memory aids include notebooks, wall calendars, pill minders, and photographs of people and places.
No medicines are currently available for treating most types of amnesia.
If Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is the cause of the amnesia, treatment can help prevent further damage. But most people won't recover all of their lost memory. Treatment includes replacing thiamin in the body, providing proper nutrition and not drinking alcohol.
If Alzheimer's disease is the cause of the amnesia, treatment with medicines called cholinesterase inhibitors can help with symptoms.
Research may one day lead to new treatments for memory disorders. But the complexity of the brain processes involved makes it unlikely that a single medicine will be able to resolve memory problems.
Living with amnesia can be frustrating for those with memory loss and for their family and friends too. People with more-severe forms of amnesia may require direct assistance from family, friends or professional caregivers.
It can be helpful to talk with others who understand what you're going through. They may be able to provide advice or tips on living with amnesia. Ask your health care provider to recommend a support group in your area for people with amnesia and their loved ones.
If an underlying cause for the amnesia is identified, there are national organizations that can provide additional information and support. Examples include:
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care provider. However, you may then be referred to a specialist in disorders of the brain and nervous system, also called a neurologist.
It's a good idea to arrive at your appointment well prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready and to know what to expect.
Preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time with your provider, as well as ensure that you cover everything you want to ask. For amnesia, some basic questions to ask include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment if you don't understand something.
Your health care provider is likely to ask you a number of questions, including: