The Causes of Forgetfulness: Memory Mishaps and Modalities

Some causes of forgetfulness, like lack of sleep, can be improved or prevented. Other causes, such as declining brain health, may be more serious and require medical intervention.

Although forgetfulness is often a stereotype for older adults, memory loss isn’t necessarily a normal part of aging. There are several causes of forgetfulness, including unpredictable conditions that may result in a range of symptoms—from sudden memory loss to mild cognitive impairment to gradual loss of memory over time. 

Regardless of how brain health affects memory, you can take significant steps to help protect yourself against memory impairment. Continue reading for common causes of forgetting, followed by helpful tips for memory management. 

What Is Forgetfulness?

Forgetfulness has to do with lapses in memory. It can be as simple as being absent-minded occasionally or may be a sign of more serious problems (like Alzheimer’s disease).

There’s a level of normal forgetfulness associated with aging, such as:

  • Having a word “on the tip of your tongue” 
  • Missing one monthly payment 
  • Misplacing items (like glasses) from time to time 
  • Not remembering what day it is until later in the day 
  • Not retaining information as well as you used to
  • Occasionally making a poor decision 
  • Taking longer to learn new skills 

Generally speaking, normal or mild forgetfulness doesn’t make it difficult to accomplish everyday tasks (such as driving or making phone calls). On the other hand, severe cognitive and memory problems can affect the ability to think clearly enough to accomplish even simple tasks. 

Understanding the causes of forgetfulness can help you to identify areas for improvement in your lifestyle. It can also give you and your loved ones the peace of mind that comes with distinguishing normal, age-related forgetfulness from deteriorating brain health. 

Biological Causes of Forgetting 

Did you know that some level of forgetfulness may be healthy? 

Forgetting Cells 

Although it’s often viewed as a negative, brains actually have an efficient way of forgetting. This involves strategically eliminating unused information to make room for more important memories. 

Scientists have special terms for forgetfulness and often discuss the difference between “passive forgetting” and “active forgetting.” Passive decay happens over time as a natural effect that the aging process has on bodies and brains. 

However, active forgetfulness theories suggest that the brain may have mechanisms like “forgetting cells” that induce forgetting methodically.  For example, your brain may forget a detail you had to remember once (like a phone number) instead of recalling important details (like a friend’s phone number).

Lifestyle Causes of Forgetting 

A lack of healthy living—like a poor diet, habits, and sleep—may cause lapses in memory. 

Poor Diet 

It may sound surprising, but diet really does make a difference when it comes to memory loss. This is certainly true for the long term since unhealthy eating patterns can take their toll on brain health over time. However, it’s also true in the short term since foods causing inflammation may create a sense of brain fog.

Deficiencies of certain vitamins may also impact memory. For example, a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause poor memory.  

Poor Habits 

In addition to poor diet, “bad” habits can impact brain health. In particular, smoking, excessive drinking, and abusing certain substances can increase the risk of memory loss. Even before memory lapses in the long term, abusing alcohol or other substances can impair judgment in the short term.  

Poor Sleep 

Sleep is often seen as a restful period, but it’s the opportune time when many body processes get to work! Unfortunately, sleep ability often worsens as age increases, and many older adults struggle to get at least 7 or 8 hours. 

For example, older adults may sleep for shorter durations or wake up more times in the middle of the night. These disruptions are associated with deficits in episodic memory, a type of long-term memory associated with recall of previous experiences. Greater sleep variation is also thought to impair memory-related brain function. 

Basically, poor sleep quality can impair memory performance in older adults. Good sleep habits may be protective of memory and brain health and may even help to slow disease progression in the case of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. 

Medical Causes of Forgetfulness 

Health conditions, even those that aren’t age-related, can impact memory. 

Certain Diseases

Although changes in memory can feel alarming, it’s important to remember that not all memory problems mean you are developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Regularly attending your physical exams can help you and your doctor catch concerning symptoms and may help you distinguish normal signs from other causes. 

Conditions that may affect memory loss include: 

  • Blood clots 
  • Brain tumors
  • Disorders of the thyroid, kidney, or liver
  • Stroke (commonly causes short-term memory loss)

The good news? Many memory problems related to medical conditions go away once treatment is pursued. However, this isn’t a guarantee, such as in the case of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In the case of these conditions, signs other than forgetfulness are often present. 

Injury or Infection 

Even if you haven’t experienced memory loss before, an injury or infection could cause a sudden change in memory. A head injury—such as a concussion, fall, or accident—can trigger a memory loss cascade. Bacterial infections, especially those affecting the brain, may also cause an inflammatory response, impairing memory. 


Medications taken to manage the above-listed conditions or other medical conditions may also compromise mental function. This may occur suddenly, seeming like a “bad reaction,” or seem more subtle. 

Luckily, memory loss from medication may be a temporary side effect. However, you’ll want to check with your doctor to ensure this is normal and that the medication isn’t masking the symptoms of another condition. 

Be especially cautious with unproven treatments for brain health. Some supplements are marketed as “brain boosters” or so-called “memory loss cures,” even though they may actually cause more harm than good. Beyond being unsafe, they can be a waste of well-earned money.  

“Blank” Causes of Forgetting 

Can overwhelming feelings cause forgetfulness? Turns out, traumatic events may have implications for memory loss. 

Emotional Distress & Stress

Intense emotional states can affect memory. Ongoing mental health struggles, like depression and anxiety, are linked with poor memory. They may make you more forgetful from day to day, and can make it difficult to make decisions.  

Isolation and loneliness, such as following the loss of a loved one, may also play a role in forgetfulness among seniors. When you cannot connect with others, it’s common for the days to begin to blend together. Managing life as a widow or widower can also feel complicated and mean that you’re now managing a lot on your own. In these situations, it’s natural to forget a detail or two. 

Grief and trauma can create temporary confusion or forgetfulness, impairing the brain’s reasoning ability. Fortunately, forgetfulness is considered a relatively normal aspect of grieving, and memory is likely to improve as strong feelings fade, and healthy coping mechanisms are created.  

Tips to Mitigate Forgetfulness 

Interested in improving memory or mitigating symptoms of forgetfulness? Look no further than these five tips. 

Be Aware of Symptoms 

Knowing the signs and symptoms of memory loss is a great first step to help protect yourself, loved ones, or family members from the more serious consequences of forgetfulness. Early signs can be hard to spot, but tend to include: 

  • Asking repeated questions 
  • Confusion about details (who, what, where, or when)
  • Changes in mood (usually sudden) 
  • Forgetting directions to a familiar place
  • Misplacing frequently used items  
  • Mixing up words 
  • Progressively poor hygiene (such as not bathing) 
  • Taking a long time to complete routine tasks 

Signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is more serious than normal forgetfulness but may not necessarily lead to severe problems, include: 

  • Forgetting important events 
  • Frequently losing items 
  • Missing appointments 
  • Trouble carrying on conversation with people of the same age

Exercise and Eat Well 

As with most other aspects of wellness, diet and exercise play an important role in optimal brain health. You can, quite literally eat your way to better brain health

Choosing nutrient-rich foods can contribute to disease prevention and help you to avoid deficiencies that could affect memory and cognition. You can also use diet to help control risk factors like high blood pressure, which may increase risk for health conditions like stroke that can ultimately affect your memory. If managing mealtime seems stressful, Silver Cuisine can provide a simple solution for getting all the nutrients you need as a senior. 

Another habit your brain benefits from? Exercise is crucial to increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to your brain. This can, in turn, enhance the mechanisms that improve memory. Instead of forcing yourself to participate in a form of exercise you hate, try finding a type of exercise you genuinely enjoy (such as dancing). 

Stress Less 

“No stress!” Easier said than done, right…?

Sometimes, stress is the underlying cause of memory loss, and addressing strong emotions is a key. This can often be done with the assistance of a trained therapist, especially if you’ve been dealing with depression for weeks at a time. Other times, reaching out to a friend may be all you need to feel better. 

Other tips for beating stress include: 

  • Listening to music 
  • Meditation or yoga
  • Reading a book
  • Taking a nap (can improve working memory!) 
  • Taking a warm bath 

Engage in Brain Games & Mind-Stimulating Activities 

Brain games, sometimes called brain exercises or mind-stimulating activities, can help to keep the brain sharp. This can be as simple as completing a crossword daily or playing card or board games with your grandkids. 

Personally meaningful activities can also stimulate the memory centers of the brain. For example: 

  • Adopting a new hobby (such as quilting) 
  • Learning a new skill with a loved one 
  • Reading a book or magazine
  • Volunteering in communities, schools, or worship centers 

Set Up Systems 

There are many types of helpful systems you can set up to “automate” everyday tasks. For instance, choosing a medication reminder system can be a key part of your routine. 

Speaking of routines, following a regular schedule daily makes a big difference if you’re dealing with forgetfulness. Try to do routine or regular tasks, like eating meals, walking the dog, or sleeping around the same time each day. For less frequent tasks, such as paying taxes, planning on a calendar, or writing yourself a note can help. 

It may go without saying, but staying organized also helps. Having “a place for everything, and everything in its place” makes it easy to find frequently used items (like keys or wallets). Even if you’re feeling forgetful, your brain may have a sort of muscle memory when it comes to locating a missing item.   

Final Thoughts on the Causes of Forgetfulness

Some causes of forgetfulness are easily remedied, while others may need closer attention over the long term. Luckily, there are many ways to mitigate or manage memory loss. 

Even though routines like eating well, exercise, and getting good sleep require some effort, their benefits from memory make them a no-brainer! 


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