As far as mental health matters go, amnesia may be one of the most frightening conditions out there. Imagine losing your memories — not just from a long time ago, such as childhood, but from recent months, weeks, even days. Amnesia is such a shocking and upsetting condition that it’s often portrayed in television and film.
That said, while amnesia has been explored in a variety of formats over the years, there is still a lot of uncertainty around the issue. Specifically, many people remain unclear about the symptoms of amnesia. While head trauma is often associated with significant memory loss, it is hardly the only cause of amnesia.
1 – Sudden trauma to the head
There are several types of head trauma that can lead to amnesia and memory loss. The first is perhaps the best known: sudden trauma to the head. This kind of head trauma is often associated with unique and physically devastating events, such as a severe sports injury, work-related accident, or motor vehicle crash.
This kind of sudden and severe head trauma can cause significant damage to the brain and, in some cases, may lead to memory loss. Depending on the age and health of the patient, the amnesia may subside, allowing memories to return.
2 – Sustained brain damage
Although amnesia is often caused by sudden trauma to the head — such as through a sports injury or traffic accident — memory loss can also be the result of sustained or consistent damage to the brain. This typically occurs in situations where the patient is regularly exposed to moderate head trauma that, in each scenario, does not result in amnesia but does lead to significant memory loss over a lengthy period of time.
This kind of amnesia is often associated with athletes playing particularly physical, even brutal, sports, such as boxing, mixed martial arts, football, hockey, or lacrosse. With every punch, kick or hit to the head, these athletes sustain slight though significant brain damage that can eventually result in memory loss and dementia.
3 – Stroke
During a stroke, blood flow to the brain is severed. Understandably, this results in serious damage to the brain, with the total amount of that damage dependent on how long the stroke lasts and how much time passes before the patient receives appropriate medical attention.
If the stroke is severe enough and the brain receives significant damage, it could result in amnesia and memory loss. In many cases this will subside, with memories slowly returning to the patient. However, this depends largely on the age of the patient and their body’s ability to recover, both physically and mentally.
4 – Alcohol abuse
Many of life’s biggest moments — from birthdays to weddings to retirement parties — are accompanied by alcohol, and sometimes lots of it. But sustained and excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to a range of significant health problems, from jaundice and liver malfunction to digestive and even reproductive issues.
But alcohol abuse can also have a seriously negative impact on the brain; over time, this could result in amnesia. The extent of this memory loss depends on several key factors, from the age of the patient to the length of the alcohol abuse. In other words, older patients who have been drinking excessively their entire lives may experience greater memory loss than younger patients with less exposure to abuse.
5 – Psychogenic amnesia
Psychogenic amnesia is quite possibly the most mysterious and least understood form of memory loss. It’s the result of a person consciously or subconsciously blocking out a part of their memory, often as a result of a highly traumatic event.
Because psychogenic amnesia often has nothing to do with physical trauma, it requires a much different approach in order to reverse memory loss. Rather than focusing on physically healing the brain, in psychogenic amnesia patients typically undergo psychiatric treatment to restore their memories. Because this process can be quite difficult for the patient, it may take years and different types of medication to comfortably restore memory and general mental well-being.
6 – Brain tumor
Amnesia is often associated with physical changes to the brain, such as damage incurred through serious head trauma or over time, as the result of excessive alcohol and drug use. But it can also be related to the emergence of new physical entities within the brain itself, such as tumors.
Brain tumors can result in memory loss because they place pressure on certain parts of the brain. Patients with brain tumors display many of the symptoms associated with degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In an ideal situation the tumor is removed, allowing the brain to recover and reverse memory loss. However, because brain surgery is incredibly complicated (and often dangerous), surgery may not be possible, particularly in cases involving older patients.
7 – Brain infection
There are a number of physical ailments that can lead to infection of the brain and significant memory loss. This includes Lyme’s disease, which is spread by ticks, and sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, HIV and AIDS.
Recovery depends largely on the type of condition and the ability of physicians to diagnose and treat the issue before too much damage is done. Because many of the health issues that result in brain infection are difficult to treat — for example, every case of Lyme’s disease tends to be different and there’s still no cure for AIDS — it may require experimentation with a range of treatments to effectively target the amnesia and reverse memory loss.
8 – Brain-targeted medical treatments
A number of serious health conditions require intensive medical procedures that can, unfortunately, result in amnesia. The most obvious of these procedures is brain surgery, which may be required where a tumor has been discovered. Any physical manipulation of the brain tissue in this way can result in the loss of memory and it may be difficult to predict or treat this issue should it arise.
Cancer chemotherapy that directly targets the brain with radiation can also lead to memory loss, though usually the problem is temporary. Electroconvulsive therapy — or “brain shock” therapy — can also lead to amnesia if practiced over a long period of time.
9 – Serious mental illness
Mental illness affects many Americans, but few must deal with conditions so serious that they can lead to amnesia and significant memory loss. But this is reality for people diagnosed with serious mental health issues like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, with memory loss significantly worse for those who remain untreated for an extended period of time.
It’s also worth noting that memory loss can be the result of certain medications targeting mental health issues. Even relatively minor mental health conditions, such as insomnia and anxiety, can require the use of medications with side effects that can include temporary memory loss.