Why Can’t I Remember Anything?

Faulty memory happens to us all. You can't find your car keys -- again. You meet someone at a party, and 5 minutes later you forget her name. You leave the grocery store and have no idea where your car is parked.

Relax. No one has a perfect memory, and it's OK to have some lapses, even if you're still young.

What’s Normal?

Things you learned only recently -- like a name at a party -- are the hardest to remember, because they haven’t yet taken root in your mind.

Also, your brain has only so much storage space. It needs to make room for new, useful items. And to do that, it has to get rid of less important details, as well as those that you don't call on often.

It’s also common to forget where you put something or an appointment that was on your schedule. Most of the time that happens because you weren’t paying close attention in the first place. Maybe you were focused on not spilling your glass of wine instead of learning that new person’s name, or you might have been thinking about your grocery list instead of where you left your car. You also tend to forget things when you're tired, sick, or stressed out.

Quick Tricks

There are things you can do to improve your recall day to day. You may have to organize (or reorganize) your life a little:

  • Get organized. Stash the items you misplace often in the same spot, and they'll be less likely to go missing in the future. Install a key hook and cell phone charging station so they have dedicated places.
  • Write it down. When it comes to keeping track of your schedule, phone numbers, and birthdays, put pen to paper. Even if you don't look at your notes, the act of writing them down can help you recall things.
  • Consult your calendar. Get a date book or wall calendar and write meetings, appointments, family outings -- and everything else -- in it. Look at your next day’s schedule before you go to bed to help keep events fresh in your mind.
  • Play word games. Create an online password you’ll never forget by using an acronym. Come up with an easy-to-recall sentence or phrase. For example, you could use the year your favorite sports team won big: SSSBC14 could stand for Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl Champions in 2014. It means something to you, so you’ll remember it, but isn’t easy for a hacker to figure out. If the password was assigned, make up a sentence that fits it.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. From a name of someone you just met to an address you need to get to, saying something again can help it stick with you.
  • Work at it. Do something to challenge your brain -- learn a new language, discuss books with your friends, or curl up with a crossword puzzle.
  • Get social. People who volunteer, or just keep up with friends and family, are more likely to stay alert.

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Lifestyle and Memory

Lifestyle affects memory. For example, your diet plays a role. If your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar are too high, the blood vessels in and around your brain can get clogged or damaged. A Harvard study showed that people who eat more saturated fat (found in meat and dairy products) do worse on memory tests than those who eat less. If you're trying to make better food choices, consider the Mediterranean diet. This way of eating -- which features omega-3-rich fish, heart-healthy olive oil, and plenty of fresh produce -- has been linked with protecting thinking and memory.

Guess what else is just as good for your memory as for the rest of your body? Regular exercise. It promotes blood flow to the brain. You should be getting 30 minutes each day. And you need regular sleep, which helps your brain file memories so you can access them later on.

If you smoke, stop. It damages blood vessels. If you’re a heavy drinker, lighten your intake. Research shows heavy drinking will mess with your memory. Moderate drinking (no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 for men), though, might actually protect it.

Memory and Aging

Memory slips do seem to get worse through the years. You slowly start losing brain cells beginning in your 20s, and certain chemicals that these cells need also decline. It makes sense that your memory is sharper at 25 than at 55 or 75.

Major memory changes don't always signal Alzheimer's disease. They can be caused by strokes, head injuries, lack of vitamins in your diet, or sleep trouble. They might even be a side effect of one of the drugs you’re taking. When in doubt, see a doctor to sort it out.

There are red flags that might reveal a more serious problem. If your slipups happen often (you forget where you parked every day) or get in the way of daily life (you can’t balance a checkbook or you don't remember where you live), see a doctor. Get checked out if your family or friends tell you that you weren’t sure who someone was -- and it was a person you know well, such as a close friend or relative.

And if you live with someone whose personality has changed or seems confused -- he's not sure where he is or what year it is -- get him to a doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 30, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

FDA: "Coping With Memory Loss."

Harvard HEALTHbeat: "Forgetfulness: 7 Types of Normal Memory Problems."

Harvard Women's Health Watch: "Boost Your Memory by Eating Right."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "12 Ways to Protect Your Memory."

Mayo Clinic: “Memory loss: 7 tips to improve your memory.”

New York-Presbyterian Hospital: "Memory Loss: What is Normal?"

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