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Memory Problems

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The term ‘memory problems’ encompasses a broad spectrum of issues, ranging from simple memory lapse or forgetfulness, right through to more serious cognitive disorders, which can include short or long-term memory loss, amnesia, Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or dementia.

A neuropsychologist can help to diagnose the cause of memory problems.

Quick facts

Extremely common
Medium difficulty to treat

Did you know?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia

source: Alzheimer's Australia

Memory is thought to be controlled by the hippocampus component of the brain, along with emotion and the autonomic nervous system. Although the word ‘memory’ is used as a noun, it is not actually a part of the brain, but rather the process of storing and recalling information. This process has three stages:

Encoding: taking in information
Consolidation: processing and storing the information
Retrieval: recalling the information

Normal memory problems or forgetfulness includes instances of: remembering someone’s face but not their name; walking into a room and forgetting why; misplacing everyday objects such as keys or glasses but remembering where things are generally kept; and recognising what direction to travel in – but not necessarily the street names.

More serious memory problems affecting day-to-day life can sometimes be an indication of a more serious condition, such as the onset of dementia. If memory problems become a point of concern or distress, it is recommended that you are assessed by a medical professional.

Risk factors for memory problems

There are some lifestyle or life cycle factors which may contribute to memory problems, such as:

  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Excess fat around the mid-section
  • Depression
  • Pregnancy
  • Menopause
  • Thyroid problems
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Hypertension
  • High cholesterol
  • Genetics
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Taking some medications
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Antihistamines

Certain diseases or conditions can also cause memory problems, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Head injury
  • Diabetes
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Brain trauma/injury
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke

Symptoms of a more serious memory problem

Whilst it is normal to have moments of forgetfulness or the occasional memory lapse, particularly with age, frequent or recurring memory problems may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. If this is the case, it is important that it is diagnosed early, as some forms of dementia can be treated.

The following symptoms may be an indication of a more serious underlying issue:

  • Getting lost while taking familiar routes
  • Worrying about your memory problems
  • Your memory problems provoke a strong emotional response
  • Your memory problems have caused you to change your lifestyle
  • Frequently misplacing things
  • A change in personality
  • Family or friends have pointed out your memory problems to you
  • Finding it difficult to make decisions
  • Repeating the same questions or having the same conversations

Top tips for memory care

  • stimulate and challenge your mind with regular brain exercises
  • aim to constantly learn new things, such as a second language or short course
  • get regular exercise and be physically active
  • eat a healthy diet, rich in omega fatty acids and good fats and low in saturated fats
  • take care of your heart – often heart and brain health go hand in hand
  • socialise, interact and converse with others regularly
  • aim to get enough sleep (ideally up to 8 hours) each night

Effective treatment of memory problems

Treatment usually depends on the underlying cause or reason for your memory problems. A change in diet, supplements, brain-boosting exercises or a tailored sleep program can often help to aid memory loss and improve brain function.

A clinical neuropsychologist may be able to help by providing cognitive counselling or rehabilitation for people suffering from memory problems. In severe cases, where dementia is involved, a doctor may also prescribe medications.

This page has been produced, reviewed and approved by:

Dr Judy Tang

BSc (Behavioural Neuroscience & Psychology), PhD (Clinical Neuropsychology) MAPS

Photo of Dr Judy Tang

Dr Judy Tang has over 10 years of career and academic expertise in Clinical Neuropsychology.

With a PhD in Clinical Neuropsychology from Monash University (2008) and a Bachelor of Science with honours (majoring in psychology and behavioural neuroscience), she provides neuropsychological services for medico-legal and community settings, workshops and seminars both to her professional peers and wider community, as well as advocacy in the areas of health and community care.

Simultaneously, she also works with the Lincoln Centre for Research on Ageing, researching persons with dementia and their carers, as well as the ACAS evaluation unit. Her mastery of quantitative research has been utilised on the state and national level for its Aged Care Assessment Program. She has also worked as a Rehabilitation Consultant for CRS Australia.

Among numerous organisations, she is an executive member of the Australian Association of Gerontology’s Victorian branch (AAG), a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), the college of Clinical Neuropsychologists (CCN), and the Victorian Police and Multicultural Advisory Committee.

In addition to speaking frequently at professional seminars and conferences around the world, Judy is also published in numerous journals on such topics as healthy ageing, anxiety and pain, and dementia.

This document was last updated and reviewed in May 2016.

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