It’s normal to be forgetful every once in a while, but if you find yourself battling multiple brain farts daily, it may be time to dig deeper to uncover the cause. Don’t panic: Chronic forgetfulness doesn’t always mean Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, there are a whole host of reasons your memory might be flagging. Find out if one of these could be causing your brain drain. (Make 2017 YOUR year by taking charge of your health and jump-starting your weight loss with the Prevention calendar and health planner!
“If you’re concerned with your memory, one of the first things to do is to review your medication list with your physician,” says Lauren Drag, PhD, a neuropsychologist and clinical instructor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. Several prescription and OTC drugs can mess with your memory, she says. Topping that list are anticholinergics, which are drugs that interfere with a neurotransmitter in your brain called acetylcholine. Antihistamines like Benadryl, reflux drugs like Zantac, and muscle spasms treatments like Flexiril are all considered anticholinergics. So are depression drugs like Paxil and Elavil.
Other medications to watch for include certain blood pressure drugs, sedatives like Valium, and some pain medications. If you suspect your treatment is to blame for your memory blips, ask your doctor if there’s an alternative worth considering.
When you’re in a mental funk, it’s hard to focus on what’s in front of you—which makes recalling it later virtually impossible. Depression may actually reshape certain parts of your brain, says Drag. “Research suggests that it can be associated with changes in the size and functioning of brain regions that are important to skills such as memory, the speed at which we think, attention, and problem-solving ability.”
Stress distracts your brain when it should be memorizing information. That’s why a phone number you’ve just been told can escape you before you even have time to pull the phone out of your pocket and dial.
In the short-term, “someone who is feeling anxious can have difficulty following a conversation because he or she is ruminating over a worrisome topic,” says Drag. And chronic, severe stress is even worse. “It can have a significant impact on the brain, presumably through long-term exposure to hormones that are released during periods of stress,” she explains.
Even the everyday hassle of managing household bills and busy schedules can chip away at your memory skills. “Juggling multiple tasks at once, staying up late to finish tasks, not exercising and not eating well—all of these factors can increase forgetfulness,” says Drag.
Just because you’re logging 8 (or more) hours under the covers doesn’t mean you’re getting good quality rest. Research has shown that people who spend less time in deep sleep have more trouble with memory. The good news? Sometimes all it takes is a quick power nap—even if you snooze for as little as 6 minutes—to give your brain a boost.
If you’re feeling abnormally tired despite your siestas, get a thorough checkup. “Sleep apnea, for example, can deprive the brain of oxygen and lead to changes in the blood supply to the brain which over time can negatively impact memory and thinking abilities,” says Drag.
You know booze muddles your mind while you’re drinking, but it can also make heavy drinkers forgetful after they’ve dried out. “Interestingly, research has shown that sobriety can lead to a temporary worsening in memory and thinking, as you go through a detox period,” says Drag. Some people—mainly life-long alcohol abusers—might never get their sharpness back. But most people can expect the fog of forgetfulness to eventually lift, says Drag, though it can take anywhere from weeks to months.
Any ailment that affects your brain’s blood supply—like diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol—can cause mental blocks. Thyroid, liver, or kidney disorders, or even a simple UTI, could also mess with memory.
As you age, your brain might show signs of wear and tear—just as your skin gets more wrinkled and your joints become creakier. Alzheimer’s becomes much more likely after 65, but mild forgetfulness is even more common. So don’t instantly freak out if you find yourself struggling to learn new skills, or to think of the word you want to use in a sentence. Exercising, making smart food choices, and surrounding yourself with a strong support network may help you stay sharper longer.
How do you know if your forgetfulness has moved past what’s normal? Anytime your memory lapses start impacting your daily life, it’s worth getting checked out. “An isolated incident of missing an exit or turning the wrong way when driving a new route isn’t unusual,” says Drag, “But if you’re frequently getting lost while driving, particularly in familiar locations, talk with your doctor.”