Memory problems: their 3 types and the possible causes
Memory is probably one of the most relevant cognitive abilities when it comes to organising our lives.
The ability to remember our history and identity, to preserve our experiences and to keep in mind what we have just done or what we have to do are elements that are largely derived from different types of memory, the deterioration of this ability being a concern for most people.
The reason for this is, in many cases, the association of memory loss with the neurodegeneration characteristic of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. But although memory deficits and alterations do appear in many of these diseases, memory problems are not limited solely to neurodegenerative diseases .
In this article we will analyze what we consider memory problems and some of the different contexts or situations in which they can appear.
What is a memory problem and when can it occur?
When we say that someone or we ourselves have a memory problem, we are generally referring to the fact that we have lived through some (usually several) situation in which we have forgotten information that we previously learned and/or that we should have remembered or had remembered.
This lack of memories can be experienced in different ways , and in some cases could be indicating the presence of some important difficulty. In particular, the growing concern about dementias such as Alzheimer’s often leads to a high level of distress and visits to the doctor and neuropsychologist.
Checking the possible reasons for these failures is more than advisable and especially from certain ages but we must also take into account that there are many factors that can cause memory problems throughout life, many of them normal and not pathological per se. However, when the memory problems are habitual and repetitive, it is highly advisable to go to a professional to assess the presence of serious difficulties.
Nor should we immediately identify memory problems with old age: young people and adults can also suffer from different faults for different reasons either in a punctual manner or with a certain frequency.
Another important aspect to take into account is the fact that although the problem that usually concerns us is usually in the memory or evocation, in fact memory is a process that is not limited only to that moment: that a memory becomes one requires that information is first captured, codified, processed, retained and finally recovered. Thus, a memory problem could actually occur at any of these moments, and it could also happen that some interference appears that hinders subsequent recall.
Confusion with other psychological problems
Memory problems are often confused or identified with the presence of problems in other skills and mental abilities. This is not an odd mistake, since the truth is that a large number of mental abilities are linked to memory .
Probably one of the most frequent confusions is between memory problems and attention problems.
Attention problems often make it difficult or even impossible to record information correctly , affecting the capture and processing of the information to be memorized , which in later memory tests could be interpreted as a memory problem. This occurs both in the face of existing attention difficulties and in situations in which simultaneous attention to different stimuli is demanded.
Types of memory problems
There are many types of memory and many affects that can occur in this capacity. As a summary, let’s mention some of the best known.
Amnesia is defined as the inability to remember past experiences in the case of retrograde amnesia, or as the inability to encode and store in memory new information in the case of antegrade amnesia, derived from the presence of a brain injury (such as amnesia syndrome) or from emotional or psychological causes (in the case of dissociative amnesia).
Amnesia can be temporary or permanent, depending on each case, and include or influence a longer or shorter period of time.
2. Paramnesias and parapraxias
Paramnesias are understood as those memory problems characterized by the presence of distortions or incorporation of false elements in the memory or associated with an erroneous temporality. It is not that the subject does not remember, but that these memories are altered .
On the other hand, parapraxies are understood as memory errors that are typical of healthy subjects and that are usually based on the forgetting of details or difficulties in the production of a memory that we know is present.
Within these groups we find memory problems such as confabulation (introducing elements to fill in memories, unconsciously), the phenomenon of the tip of the tongue (when a word does not come out that we know in the background), temporary gaps or loss of details due to the automation of known tasks.
Also you can see recognition problems such as the well-known déjà vu (living something for the first time even though we have the feeling of having lived it before) and the cryptoamnesia (believing that a memory is not such but something that happens now for the first time).
We rarely identify with remembering too much, but the truth is that for some people it can be. This is what happens with the flashes experienced when taking certain drugs , in post-traumatic stress disorder or in psychopathological conditions such as paranoia or ecmnesia (in which it is believed to be living in the past.
Causes and situations in which they occur
There are multiple possible causes, contexts and situations that can be linked to the emergence of a memory problem. Among them we can find some that are in fact normative and others that derive from some kind of pathology or acquired situation .
1. Interferences in the memorization process
Our knowledge is influenced by the events and learnings we receive over time. One of the possible reasons why a memory problem may appear that does not necessarily imply pathology is the interference generated by what is learned before or after the event to be remembered.
This is easier to understand with an example: if I learn a phone number at one time and a little before or a little after we have learned another one, we are likely to forget some of the numbers or confuse them .
2. Lack of sleep and/or nutrition
Tiredness and fatigue are aspects that can severely impair our mental capacities. Sleep in general is associated with the recovery of the body and the nervous system.
REM sleep is associated with the consolidation in the memory of memories . Sleep deprivation generally impairs higher mental processes, including especially memory. Furthermore, the attention and concentration necessary to detect, capture and process information will also be impaired if we do not get enough sleep.
3. Stress and anxiety
Having to do many things at the same time, being agitated or nervous, or suffering from anxiety or burnout can also be other reasons for memory problems.
Although they are especially evident in the case of prospective memory (towards the future, that is to say, remembering that a certain thing must be done), there can also appear failures, blockages or forgetting of concrete experiences in the past or the difficulty of recording new information .
A large part of these memory problems are linked to attentional problems, with the subject being concentrated and immersed in the distress or stressful situation.
4. Health problems
Memory is also affected by different physical diseases. For example, breathing problems can cause less blood to reach the brain , something that has a direct effect on its functioning and in certain areas can affect the ability to remember.
Problems and diseases such as anemia, diabetes, excessive blood loss or lack of vitamins and other nutrients can also lead to memory problems. The same can be said about the presence of tumors that affect or put pressure on certain brain areas.
5. Drugs and side effects of some drugs
The consumption of alcohol and different drugs has also been associated with the appearance of memory problems, blockages and other diverse problems. In some cases, disorders such as Korsakoff’s syndrome may appear, in which memory is severely affected.
Some drugs can also cause memory problems as a side effect, such as some psychopharmaceuticals (although other drugs are also associated with this). In the event that memory deficits appear it may be possible to look for an analogous drug to avoid this effect , or assess the pros and cons of maintaining the treatment.
6. Depression and other mood disorders
Depression can also lead to memory problems, based among other factors on the mental slowness it can bring, rumination and concentration problems that can be associated with this diagnosis. It is not uncommon for blockages, evocation failures derived from inattention or bias towards the memory of negative events to appear .
7. Normative aging
We all know that most people, over the years, lose their faculties. We become slower, have more mobility problems and need more time to reason .
It’s the same with memory: as a rule (though not always) most of us lose the ability to learn new things, and it’s easier for us to become confused and forgetful. This is due to the aging of the neurons, and it is common for regions of the brain such as the hippocampus to shrink or for the blood level in them to drop.
All this means that we can say that some memory loss is to be expected, although the level of loss must be monitored, if it generates dysfunctions or if a clear decrease is perceived with respect to previous moments.
8. Acquired brain damage: head trauma and stroke
Traffic accidents or different types of blows to the head can also generate memory problems, in the form of amnesia, either antegrade (recording new information) or retrograde (from previous knowledge or experience). This can occur at any age.
Similarly, strokes (whether hemorrhagic or ischemic) can affect brain areas linked to memory, such as the hippocampus. In fact, in some cases a vascular dementia may end up arising from the presentation of cerebral infarctions, which depending on the areas affected may cause alterations in memory.
9. Processes of cognitive impairment and dementia
While we have started this article by pointing out that not every memory problem involves dementia, we cannot fail to mention this type of disorder along with the mild cognitive impairment and deterioration that occurs in other mental disorders as one of the causes of memory problems.
In the case of dementias, these memory problems will in most cases tend to become more accentuated and aggravated over time due to neurodegeneration.
- Santos, J.L. (2012). Psychopathology. CEDE PIR Preparation Manual, 01. Madrid.