Drawing a blank can be frustrating, especially when you’re trying to get things done. It’s enough to make anyone think they’re going crazy and finding a cure is essential. But since everyone has their own causes of being forgetful, you’ll have to personalize your approach.
Some reasons are temporary and reversible. Others are chronic conditions that can be slowed down or prevented. Often, there are multiple reasons at play. If things keep slipping your mind, learn about these 11 causes of forgetfulness and strategies to improve your memory.
Why Do We Forget Things?
Neurons are brain cells that send information to each other, helping you focus and learn. But depression impairs neurogenesis or the creation of neurons.1 It also messes with a process called “pattern separation” which is in charge of storing memories. Normally, this process makes your hippocampus distinguish a specific situation. Depression will, however, make it take a nosedive. 2
2. Sleep Deprivation
Once you form a memory, your brain works on storing it while you sleep. In fact, the sleeping state is the best environment for your brain to do that! But if you don’t get enough rest, there won’t be a chance for storing. You’ll be more likely to keep forgetting things done just a few minutes ago.3
Like alcohol, smoking cigarettes poisons the body. It even thins the brain’s cortical thickness, a major marker of cognitive decline. Unsurprisingly, the more you smoke, the more you’re likely to forget things.4 Your risk for dementia will also skyrocket.5
It doesn’t stop at cigarettes. Marijuana makes certain brain receptors overreact, since its main chemical, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), looks like other chemicals that help normal brain function. This connection is one of the main causes of forgetfulness and short-term memory loss from marijuana. However, long-term use can lead to permanent memory issues.6
If you’re older and keep forgetting names, a syndrome possibility is dementia. Of the 16 million elders with age-associated memory impairment, about 1 percent will get it. This is an umbrella term for brain disease where you forget things because of mental decline. The most common type is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.7
When you’re stressed and distracted, it’s easy to keep forgetting things within seconds. And when that stress builds up? It can weaken the hippocampus, the part of your brain that’s in charge of spatial memory. This type of memory is related to your environment, like forgetting things and where you put them.8
Chronic stress also increases your level of cortisol, the stress hormone. Continued exposure can impair your hippocampus and therefore, worsen learning and memory. Always being stressed may contribute to the other conditions on this list.9
Multi-tasking might make you feel productive, but it’s a good way to forget things. The constant flip-flopping will never let you focus on just one task. You might start forgetting names and words if you’re always doing something when someone is talking to you.
When you do something, your brain tries to zero in on it. But when you interrupt that task, your brain goes into “task-switching domain”. Here, working memory and active focus are barely used. So you never fully indulge in what you were doing.10
7. Excessive Alcohol Use
Long-term alcohol drinking can also slow down neurogenesis. It also exposes brain cells to oxidative stress while reducing antioxidant levels, leaving room for mental disease and decline. Alcoholism also weakens the hippocampus, making it hard for the brain to make new memories. 11 Forgetting people’s names and directions from alcoholism also gets worse with age.
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, means that your body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone (TH). This hormone regulates many processes, including clear thinking and focus. Memory can also take a hit, so you might start forgetting names of things and what people say. You may also catch yourself thinking, “I keep forgetting words!” when you talk.12
9. Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 is needed for healthy red blood cells. But if you don’t get enough, neurologic and psychiatric problems can crop up. Memory loss, forgetfulness, irritability, and depression may develop. The risk for dementia also increases.13 To get enough vitamin B12, eat fish, poultry, nuts, cheese, eggs, and milk products.
Forgetting words, names, and appointments is another possible side effect of medication. Antidepressants, sleeping pills, pain medications, and steroids can all cause it. Cholesterol-lowering statins have also been found to reduce mental function.14 If you’re taking any of these meds, let your doctor know if you start forgetting things more often.
As you get older, age may be what causes forgetfulness. This is known as age-associated memory impairment and affects about 40 percent of elders aged 65 or older. That’s about 16 million people in the United States.
Occasional forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. After all, the brain goes through many changes during this time.15 Stress, depression, anxiety, smoking, and alcoholism can all make it worse.16
If you keep forgetting things, try these tips and tricks.
- Conversations – If you can’t recall specific words and phrases, listen more intently. Don’t multitask! Use your full attention and keep a journal.
- Keys –Designate a spot in the house for your keys. Make it a habit – and easy to find.
- Items –Things should also have assigned spots. You can also write down the locations.
- Memories – A daily journal can document the most memorable parts of a day. Sleeping enough will also ensure that your brain stores them properly.
- Songs – Play a song on repeat and don’t multitask while you listen. Set it as your morning alarm.
- Names and People – When you meet someone, focus on the person. Repeat their name out loud and look for distinct facial features.
If you forget things within seconds, there is hope! According to the Association for Psychological Science, you will quickly forget things if there’s no expectation to remember it. The brain’s processes will only hold on to something if it thinks it will help your goals.17 To fix this, try to relate to what is going on. Find something in common or imagine scenarios where you’ll need to remember it.
|↑1||Shelton, Don J., and C. Brock Kirwan. “A possible negative influence of depression on the ability to overcome memory interference.” Behavioural brain research 256 (2013): 20-26.|
|↑2||Yassa, Michael A., and Craig EL Stark. “Pattern separation in the hippocampus.” Trends in neurosciences 34, no. 10 (2011): 515-525.|
|↑3||Rasch, Björn, and Jan Born. “About sleep’s role in memory.” Physiological reviews 93, no. 2 (2013): 681-766.|
|↑4||Karama, Sherif, Simon Ducharme, Janie Corley, François Chouinard-Decorte, John M. Starr, Joanna M. Wardlaw, Mark E. Bastin, and Ian J. Deary. “Cigarette smoking and thinning of the brain’s cortex.” Molecular psychiatry 20, no. 6 (2015): 778-785.|
|↑5||Rusanen, Minna, Miia Kivipelto, Charles P. Quesenberry, Jufen Zhou, and Rachel A. Whitmer. “Heavy smoking in midlife and long-term risk of Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia.” Archives of internal medicine 171, no. 4 (2011): 333-339.|
|↑6||Marijuana.National Institute on Drug Abuse.|
|↑7||What Is Dementia?Alzheimer’s Association.|
|↑8||Conrad, Cheryl D. “A critical review of chronic stress effects on spatial learning and memory.” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 34, no. 5 (2010): 742-755.|
|↑9||Small, Gary W. “What we need to know about age related memory loss.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 324, no. 7352 (2002): 1502.|
|↑10||Mayr, Ulrich, and Reinhold Kliegl. “Task-set switching and long-term memory retrieval.” (2000): 1124.|
|↑11||Herrera, Daniel G., Almudena G. Yagüe, Siv Johnsen-Soriano, Francisco Bosch-Morell, Lucía Collado-Morente, Maria Muriach, Francisco J. Romero, and J. Manuel García-Verdugo. “Selective impairment of hippocampal neurogenesis by chronic alcoholism: protective effects of an antioxidant.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, no. 13 (2003): 7919-7924.|
|↑12||Underactive thyroid: Overview. U.S. National Library of Medicine.|
|↑13||Oh, Robert C. and David L. Brown. Vitamin B12 Deficiency. American Family Physician 67.5(2003):979-986.|
|↑14||Evans, Marcella A., and Beatrice A. Golomb. “Statin‐Associated Adverse Cognitive Effects: Survey Results from 171 Patients.” Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy 29, no. 7 (2009): 800-811.|
|↑15||Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help. National Institute on Aging.|
|↑16||Small, Gary W. “What we need to know about age related memory loss.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 324, no. 7352 (2002): 1502.|
|↑17||Chen, Hui, and Brad Wyble. “Amnesia for Object Attributes Failure to Report Attended Information That Had Just Reached Conscious Awareness.” Psychological science (2015): 0956797614560648.|