5 Reasons Why You Are Forgetful or Absentminded

By Alice Bassett
Joel Taylor
Edited by Joel Taylor

Published March 26, 2022.

Woman with short hair and hand on forehead wearing pink button shirt

While not inherently harmful, forgetfulness and absentmindedness can undoubtedly be an annoyance. Usually, a lapse in memory is not something to be concerned about; however, it is important to know what might be causing it.

Forgetfulness can be thought of as simply having a lapse in your memory, while absentmindedness refers to a state of being where you may be lost in your thoughts and not thinking or noticing that which you should. For the purpose of this article, however, we will use the terms interchangeably.

Let's take a look at some of the reasons you may be experiencing forgetfulness or absentmindedness.

1. Fatigue

One of the main reasons for memory lapse is fatigue. Sleep deprivation can affect both your long- and short-term memory and your overall cognitive performance (1). A lack of sleep may cause difficulty in one's recall. For the most part, this is mild and refers to simple spells of absentmindedness. It is important to note here that fatigue can occur as a result of both quality and quantity of sleep.

Quantity of sleep refers to how many hours you are sleeping, whereas quality refers to how beneficial the rest was. Light and noise pollution, excessive screen time before bed, and alcohol consumption can all influence the quality of your sleep. You can sleep for a full eight hours, but you will not receive all of the benefits if the quality is poor.

2. Stress

In times of high pressure, you may find yourself experiencing more frequent lapses in your memory or otherwise being in a state where your mind is not focused on what it should be. Higher cortisol levels have been associated with a decline in cognitive function (2). Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in your body, and individuals with higher cortisol levels (and, by deduction, more stressed) have exhibited stronger feelings of absentmindedness and forgetfulness.

3. Depression

Any mood disorder that affects the hippocampal region in the brain will have some effect on memory. The hippocampus is responsible for the storage and retrieval of declarative and spatial memory (3).

  • Declarative Memory This refers to memories of events that occurred or facts that you know. For example, the knowledge that you have about the date of your mother's birthday.
  • Spatial Memory This memory orientates you and allows you to remember the location of things or something happening. For example, remembering where you hung your jacket.

Studies have found a correlation between individuals with depression and a decrease in hippocampal volume (4). This would explain the forgetfulness of events which would form part of their declarative and spatial memory.

4. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol, particularly alcohol abuse, can seriously damage the hippocampal structure, which can cause you to experience increased sensations of absentmindedness (5). In addition to this, alcohol can significantly contribute to brain atrophy, which will cause cognitive decline in all aspects.

While the effects of alcohol abuse on the hippocampus do interfere with short-term memory and can be as mild as simple forgetfulness, alcohol abuse can certainly lead to more long-term adverse effects.

5. Thyroid Problems

As strange as the connection may seem, your thyroid plays a huge role in your cognitive function and can even impact the development of dementia. Hyperthyroidism, or a thyroid that produces more hormones than it should, can lead to sleep deprivation (6). As discussed before, a lack of sleep can lead to memory lapses and a prolonged state of absentmindedness.

Should You See a Doctor for Forgetfulness?

If you are experiencing memory lapses that are frequent and more severe than what can be considered as simply being forgetful, it is advised that you see a doctor.

Risk of Dementia

One key concern is the relationship between memory loss and various forms of dementia. If you are an older individual experiencing frequent periods of forgetfulness and absentmindedness, consider seeing your doctor about the onset of one of the many forms of dementia.

Some other symptoms to look out for include:

For the most part, mild feelings of forgetfulness and absentmindedness should not be a cause for concern. Perhaps you are simply going through a stressful period in your life, or you didn't get a good night's rest. You should be wary when these symptoms persist, worsen, or suddenly appear entirely out of character.