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It is the result of damage to neuroanatomical structures that hinders the storage, retention and recollection of memories. Memory disorders can be progressive, including Alzheimer's disease, or they can be immediate including disorders resulting from head injury.
The different types of memory disorders
If you suffer from regular mental blocks or memory slips, you are not alone. Our mental speed seems to decline from our late-teens and early-20s - and especially when we are under stress.
There are many different types of memory loss that affect us. Here, we look at the main memory disorders.
How many times have you searched the house for lost car keys - or tried to introduce someone at a party and forgotten their name? If this sounds familiar, you could be suffering from a 'memory slip'.
According to Ian Robinson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin, this common trait is actually a disorder of attention - rather than memory loss.
'As we get older, we find it harder to split our attention between several tasks,' says Professor Robinson. 'This is because too many thoughts in our head clutter up our memory centre found deep in our brain. When our brain can't cope it turns off the electricity that fires up our neurotransmitters - substances that send messages to our brain and switches on our memory.'
Studies show that the frontal lobes in the brains of older people are much more vulnerable to ageing than other parts of the body - and more prone to temporary memory loss than younger people. 'It is thought that as we get older, we get out of the habit of learning new experiences leaving our brain unexercised,' says Professor Robinson.
But the good news is there is plenty we can to do to improve our memory. Click on the link below to discover six ways to boost your brain power.
Dementia can be caused by the effect of toxins on the brain. General alcohol dementia is characterised by damage throughout the brain caused by the abuse of alcohol.
This brain disorder is associated with heavy drinking over a long period of time. While not strictly speaking a dementia, those with the condition experience loss of short-term memory. According to the Alzheimer's Society, 10 per cent of younger people are affected by alcohol-related dementia.
It has been estimated that about a quarter of those affected from alcohol-related dementia will make a very good recovery. About half will make a partial recovery and need support to manage their lives. Another quarter will make no recovery and may need long-term care.
People often complain of their mind going blank, especially as they get older. This common experience happens when the frontal lobes of our brain temporarily lose track of what our brain plans to do.
As we get older our memory appears to have a more limited capacity, holding a smaller number of thoughts than when we were younger. Typically this happens when one thought is easily erased by another thought.
The good news is that a regular workout of the brain can help to overcome mental blanks. Regular meditation, mind games and physical exercise is said to have instant improvements on memory loss.
Apart from common memory lapses that many of us experience, there are also some serious medical conditions that involve long-term memory loss.
The term 'dementia' describes a group of symptoms caused by the impact of disease on the brain.
Symptoms typically include problems with memory, speech and perception.
Short-term memory is usually affected. This may mean that the person with dementia forgets the names of family or friends - or how to perform simple everyday tasks. They may, however, retain their long-term memory, clearly remembering events from the past.
The person with dementia might have problems finding the right words, or may seem to have difficulties understanding what is being said to them.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting around 500,000 people in the UK. Dementia affects one in 20 people over the age of 65 - and one in five over the age of 80.
During the course of the disease, the chemistry of the brain changes and cells, nerves and transmitters are attacked. Eventually the brain shrinks as gaps develop.
Early onset Alzheimer's disease
Dementia in people under the age of 65 is relatively rare, but around 17,000 people aged between 30 and 64 suffer from early onset Alzheimers in the UK.
Researchers have found that there are a small number of families where early onset Alzheimer's appears to be caused by the particular type of genes they inherit. However, it is also thought that 10 per cent of those suffering from the disease is alcohol-related and 18 per cent is due to vascular dementia.
Vascular dementia describes all those forms of dementia caused by damage to the blood vessels leading to the brain. The brain relies on a network of vessels to bring it oxygen-bearing blood. If the oxygen supply to the brain fails, brain cells are likely to die.
Symptoms of vascular dementia can either happen suddenly following a stroke, or over time through a series of small strokes in the brain, known as multi-infarct dementia. In vascular dementia some mental abilities may be unchanged, but symptoms may include depression or mood swings.
Post-traumatic memory loss
When stress is severe it can cause physical changes to the brain cells leading to long-term memory loss. This can happen after a bad accident and can be experienced by soldiers fighting at war.
Studies show that Vietnam war soldiers experienced shrinkage of the memory centre. This happens when the brain is flooded with a brain chemical called glutamate which reduces the brain cells.
There are other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms including reactions to medications, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, infections, brain tumors, anoxia or hypoxia, and heart and lung problems. A comprehensive work-up is therefore indicated for all patients who develop symptoms of dementia.
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