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Imagine losing your memory for a day. That's what happens to people with transient global amnesia

Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

"It's always a frightening, disturbing event," Young said.

Among the potential triggers are stress and strong emotions. A recent study from a German academic medical center found an increase in transient amnesia cases in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers thought stress might be to blame. Between Feb. 1 and May 15, 2020, the hospital saw 16 patients with the condition compared with an average of 9.7 during that time period in the previous 10 years. Ralph Werner, one of the doctors involved in the study, said the numbers returned to baseline this year, possibly because the pandemic no longer seemed so frightening.

Neurologists in the United States said they were not aware of similar research in this country.

Beyond stress, transient global amnesia is associated with a strange assortment of possible triggers: sudden immersion in cold or hot water, strenuous activity, sexual intercourse, some medical procedures, and mild head trauma. It is more common in people over 50 — the average age is about 62 — and often starts in the morning. People who, like Hanson, have a history of migraines are at higher risk.

Epileptic seizures can cause shorter memory lapses called transient epileptic amnesia. While people with strokes usually have physical symptoms, as well, some with amnesia are actually having strokes, so it's important to see a doctor. Physicians have to rule out other neurologic problems before settling on the more reassuring TGA diagnosis.

The hallmark of TGA is repeated questions. What am I doing here? Where was I going? This may sound a lot like dementia, but dementia patients have broader problems with their thinking that develop gradually. People with TGA know their names and their addresses. They can still competently perform such skills as driving a car, hitting a golf ball, cooking or doing math problems. They just can't remember what happened a few minutes ago.

 

"They just sort of lose the context of that moment," said Diana Tzeng, a neurologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

The memory changes usually last four to six hours, Young said, but can continue for up to 24 hours. It's variable, but memory usually returns in a "piecemeal fashion," he said.

The condition is hard to study because it is so unusual and doesn't last long. Patients are often seen in emergency departments and may not be seen by doctors who specialize in cognition until after the symptoms are gone. Doctors said it's a shame they don't know more, because TGA could help them better understand other memory disorders.

"Potentially, these cases illuminate how the mind works and how memory works," said Barry Gordon, a Johns Hopkins University neurologist.

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