Many people report being forgetful, or that their memory is getting worse. People often say, half-jokingly, that they must be developing dementia, because they struggle to remember things like they used to. Commonly, people tell their psychiatrists that their memory is good for things that happened a long time ago.

While struggling to form new memories is a common symptom of dementia, and can often be the first symptom, there are many other reasons and causes for ‘bad’ memory or deteriorating memory. A common reason is increasing demands of life; as we take more on, have more responsibilities, and more to focus on, the amount we can retain appears to be less. This is not the case: we are simply running at capacity. However, with increasing demands of life can come fatigue, particularly if you aren’t sleeping as well as you did, which certainly (and commonly) impairs our ability to remember things.

Psychiatrists will see many people with mental illness or a mental disorder that affects memory. The most common cause is depression. A very common symptom of depressive disorders is impaired concentration. If you struggle to focus and concentrate on something, you will struggle to remember it. Many people report this as “bad memory”, rather than poor concentration. People with anxiety disorders and excessive worrying might also report poor memory, if the worry they experience impairs their ability to concentrate.

Another common cause of poor memory is ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).  Inattentive symptoms tend to predominate in adults, and a core inattentive symptom is poor memory. This is also due to impaired ability to concentrate, focus, remain undistracted and retain information.

Almost all psychiatric conditions could impair memory, including severe psychosis and mania. However, these conditions are less common and are likely to lead to a person getting medical help very soon. But given that many psychiatric illnesses and conditions can cause memory difficulties, it is important to have an assessment by a consultant psychiatrist if you are concerned about memory, and it is impairing your ability to undertake the usual activities in your life. A psychiatrist will be able to assess you and explain what the cause is for you.

Written by Dr Adam Joiner, Consultant Psychiatrist, MBBS, BSc (Hons), MMed, MRCPsych, Chief Medical Officer, Psychiatry-UK LLP
January 2022