Carole Carson: Five ways memory gets damaged |

Carole Carson: Five ways memory gets damaged

By Carole Carson | Submitted to The Union

“What are we, if not an accumulation of our memories?” asks S.J. Watson, author of the international bestseller “Before I Go to Sleep.”

Memory is fundamental to our well-being. It links our past with the present, allowing us to draw on our experiences to help us today. Simultaneously, it provides continuity with what will be. And if you think about it, even creativity is driven by memory.

Memory capabilities and deficits are inherited. Yet because a functioning memory is so critical to our welfare, we can still take steps to protect our inheritance. Based on my research, I’ve categorized five ways memories are damaged below.

Ingestion of chemicals: Regular alcohol use, smoking and illegal drug use impair memory, even going so far as to induce amnesia.

Many prescription drugs can trigger memory loss. AARP’s website has a list of 10 commonly prescribed drugs that may damage memory, including sleeping aids and antihistamines. Harvard Medical School also includes blood pressure lowering prescriptions in its list.

But please don’t stop taking any of your medications without talking to your doctor. The medical benefit may outweigh the risk of any memory loss.

Illnesses and physical conditions: Memory can be harmed by a deficiency in vitamin B12, thyroid dysfunction, brain tumor, seizure, stroke or neurodegenerative illness such as Huntington’s, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s.

While diabetes by itself doesn’t appear to trigger memory loss, researchers report that people with diabetes have a fourfold risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Similarly, people with prediabetes or metabolic syndrome have an increased risk for having predementia or mild cognitive impairment.

The theory is that when diabetes is not controlled, excess sugar remains in the blood. Over time, this damages organs, including the brain.

Medical procedures: Certain surgeries (like brain surgery or bypass surgery) can damage both short- and long-term memory. Cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation and bone marrow transplants, have also been reported to cause memory loss.

Injuries and accidents: A blow to the head, a lack of oxygen for whatever reason or a concussion can cause temporary amnesia or longer-term memory loss.

Mental conditions and disorders: Lack of sleep, emotional trauma, depression, bipolar disease, schizophrenia, inherited memory deficits and a dissociative disorder also reduce memory functioning.

Even mental states such as stress, anxiety or depression can impair memory functions.


Clearly, some of the causes of memory loss listed above are outside our control.

But others, like smoking, excess consumption of alcohol, use of drugs (whether over-the-counter, prescription or illegal), excess stress, poor sleep habits, or high blood sugar are a function of our daily choices.

If you’re worried about your memory, talk to your regular doctor who may be able to refer you to local resources. And if you’re tempted to take an online memory test, be aware that most are considered unreliable.

I was diagnosed with serious memory problems on the first one I took. I think it was because I said that I don’t always remember where I parked the car when I shop and I can’t remember all my passwords.

But on the positive side, the second memory test put me in the 97th percentile of all test takers.

The few tests that provide accurate results, such as the Saint Louis University Mental Status (SLUMS) exam, require that the test be given and scored by a second party.

For more comprehensive testing, you and your doctor may want to explore clinics, such as the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders Center or the Mayo Medical Clinic.

Our memory is precious and well worth the time, effort and energy it takes to protect it.

Carole Carson, of Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown and guest speaker for The Union’s Longevity Project on Feb. 27. Contact:


This is the second of a three-part series on memory. The final article is about the factors that enhance memory.


What: Virtual Zoom event from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 27

More info: The Longevity Project is a virtual event that celebrates living a long, healthy life. Hear stories from those who are living long and healthy lives and how they are still thriving. Also learn from experts on what you can do to bring longevity to your life. Topics include: Quigong and tai chi with Homer Nottingham; brain health with Carole Carson; dental health with Dr. Sean Rockwell; nutrition with Kelly Hull of Dignity Health; and emotional health with Keith Thompson of Anew Day.

Register: To learn how you can live a long healthy life, sign up at:

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