Overview of Memory and Memory Loss
While memory is often simply defined as the remembrance of a particular object or event, the process that defines the memory in the brain is significantly more complex. The formation of a memory occurs as our brain cells, or neurons, form connections, signal to one another, and stimulate the synthesis of proteins that participate in the processes of memory formation.
Memory can be divided into three main stages. First, the brain must register and understand the information it is receiving. This encoding phase is essentially a processing phase, where we think about what we have seen, understand it, and collect the details about it for recall later. Neural connections are made in response to all the memory information, including any sensory input or meaning that we assign to it, putting it into storage.
Depending on how and where these neural connections are made, this storage phase will file the information as long or short term memories. Short term memory storage is limited both in capacity and duration, meaning that the memory may eventually be forgotten. Long term memory involves more permanent neural connections, such that the memories can be retained for much longer, even a lifetime. Following proper storage, the memories are available for retrieval. This process of recalling the memory may happen in response to a sensory cue or other environmental factor that sparks the process and the memory is remembered. Each of these stages is essential for memory, and loss or disruption of any one of them can result in memory loss.
Memory loss as a phenomenon is often associated with the development of dementia, a decline in cognitive function. Simply forgetting something does not necessarily indicate clinical memory loss or a memory disorder. There are numerous mental processes that may change during our lifetimes, particularly as we get older, that may affect our learning, attention span, and the ability to recall information. Everyone has different innate abilities to form, store, and recall memories, as well, so comparing yourself with another person your same age is not reasonable for assessing memory loss. Instead, make notes of dramatic changes in the quality of your own memory forming processes. Forgetting where you have put your car keys, for example, is a normal sign of forgetfulness and nothing to be concerned about. Forgetting what the car keys are used for, however, may be a sign that there is memory loss.
Symptoms of Memory Loss
As mentioned above, people normally experience variations in memory. There are numerous factors that determine the strength of a memory, some as simple as whether you were distracted by something else at the time of the thing you cannot remember (like where you put your car keys). Memory loss due to dementia is a progressive loss in memory, however, and results from more permanent defects in memory creation, storage, and retrieval. For example, a person developing dementia may begin to have difficulty remembering very familiar things such as names or words if their retrieval is impaired. People, events, and knowledge may be forgotten. Memory loss may also make following stories difficult, as people are unable to unable to create or store the information about things that they are seeing and hearing. As short term memory further declines, the capacity to follow verbal or written directions may be lost. Eventually, a person may be unable to perform normal daily activities, such as bathing, cooking, and dressing.
Risk Factors of Memory Loss
Forgetfulness is not particularly harmful, though it may be annoying. Forgetful people may find themselves always searching their homes for lost items, running late for things, or having to explain to people why they may not have done what they promised to do because they forgot.
Advanced memory loss and dementia have more serious risk factors, however, the most practical of which is the inability to live independently. Unable to remember how to perform simple tasks and when to perform them, people may not be able to care well enough for themselves and stay safe from harm. As language is forgotten, they may lose the ability to communicate. As the memory loss progresses, there are also considerable emotional issues, as they realize that their minds are declining. Many people with dementia also become quite scared if they forget where they are or who they are talking to.
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