Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Confusion, Memory Loss, and Altered Alertness
It is not unusual to
occasionally forget where you put your keys or glasses, where you parked your
car, or the name of an acquaintance. As you age, it may take you longer to
remember things. Not all older adults have memory changes, but they can be a
normal part of aging. This type of memory problem is more often annoying than
Memory loss that begins suddenly or that significantly
interferes with your ability to function in daily life may mean a more serious
problem is present.
Confusion or decreased alertness may be the first
symptom of a serious illness, particularly in older adults. Health problems
that can cause confusion or decreased alertness include:
Alcohol and many prescription and nonprescription
medicines can cause confusion or decreased alertness.
These problems may develop from:
Other causes of confusion or decreased alertness can
Conditions in the environment that can cause changes in the
level of consciousness include:
Many times other symptoms are present, such as a fever, chest
pain, or the inability to walk or stand. It is important to look for and tell
your doctor about other symptoms you experience when confusion or decreased
alertness occurs. This can help your doctor determine the cause of your
A decrease in alertness may progress to
loss of consciousness. A person who loses
consciousness is not awake and is not aware of his or her surroundings. Fainting
(syncope) is a form of brief unconsciousness. Coma is a
deep, prolonged state of unconsciousness.
symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind
of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be
able to take care of this problem at home.
Symptoms of a heart attack may
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that
you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common
symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other
symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Problems with memory, judgment, or problem solving include things like:
Confusion may range from mild to severe. A person who is confused may:
Symptoms of a stroke may
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can affect
your memory. A few examples are:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Severe trouble breathing means:
Moderate trouble breathing means:
Mild trouble breathing means:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The
problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need
Call911or other emergency services now.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical
Based on your answers, you need
After you call
911 , the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2
to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
As you age, it is normal to
experience some memory lapses. Usually, an occasional memory lapse does not
mean you have a serious problem. Try these steps to help
improve your memory:
Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal treatment for memory
problems. But studies have not shown that ginkgo biloba helps improve memory or prevent dementia.footnote 1 Before you use any treatment for a memory problem, discuss the
potential risks and benefits of the treatment with your doctor.
Living with a family member who has a decline in memory, problem-solving
ability, learning ability, or judgment (dementia) is
hard. To ensure your family member's
health and safety, give him or her short instructions
when teaching a new task. Break the task down into simple steps. You may find
it helpful to give the person written instructions.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home
You can sometimes reduce the impact of
age-related memory problems. The saying "use it or lose it" applies to your
memory. Your best defense against a memory problem is to stay healthy and
Prevent accidents and injuries that might lead to memory
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your
doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the
Birks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Current as ofMarch 20, 2017
Current as of:
March 20, 2017
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2018 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups and pregnancy.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.