It's hard not to think of Alzheimer's disease when memory loss or a memory lapse darkens your day. After all, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia are constantly in the headlines -- and of the more than five million affected Americans, 200,000 are under age 65. But many other situations can also produce this worrisome symptom.
Memory loss is just one Alzheimer's warning sign. Others, for example, include personality changes and problems managing money.
Your safest bet: "If you're concerned about memory issues, see a specialist," says psychiatrist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of several books about memory and cognition, including The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head. An evaluation will examine the type of memory loss, its timing, environmental factors (such as injuries or drug use), and other symptoms. (See also Worried About Your Memory? 5 Signs It's Serious.)
The eight following conditions are among the non-Alzheimer's causes of memory loss to consider:
Memory-loss cause #1: Chronic stress
Why it happens: When the body goes on hyperalert to face a crisis, a series of biochemical changes takes place that fuels the fight-or-flight response system. The chemical cortisol increases in the brain, for example, to mobilize energy and alertness. That's great when a saber-toothed tiger is chasing you. But when tension and anxiety become chronic, as with work or family problems, the system is overloaded with substances that are intended for emergency use only.
Result: The brain actually loses cells and has trouble forming new neurons. This creates problems with cognitive thinking, especially with regard to retaining new information.
What else to look for:
Is your sleep disrupted, or are you getting less of it? Sleep deprivation compounds the effects of stress on the brain, because memories are sorted and organized during normal sleep.
Are you multitasking your way through a stressful period? Straining the attention system drains memory, too.