Does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Cause Memory Loss?

Researchers say that survivors of traumatic events may experience confusion or memory loss, but people with a strong cognitive reserve are less likely to have such symptoms.

Association Between PTSD and Memory Loss

In one study of 10,766 9/11 attacks survivors, researchers analyzed self-report responses to two survey questions:

  • During the last 12 months, have you experienced confusion or memory loss other than occasionally forgetting the name of someone you recently met?

  • During the last 12 months, has your confusion or memory loss happened more often or gotten worse?

They found that the incidence of confusion or memory loss (CML) was 20.2%, and CML exhibited a dose-response relationship with mental health comorbidity. The worsening CML exhibited a moderate to strong association with mental health comorbidity among people who reported CML.

In a similar study of 14,574 survivors, researcher found that the proportion of probable PTSD was much greater among those with confusion or memory loss compared to those without confusion or memory loss (17% vs. 6%, respectively).

A Strong Cognitive Reserve Helps

Cognitive reserve theory suggests that higher levels of education and engaging in cognitively challenging activities can create stronger neural connections, offering protection against cognitive decline.

In the study of 14,574 9/11 attack survivors, researchers measured level of cognitive reserve by seven indicators: educational attainment, marital status, employment status, number of close friends, communication with friends in last 30 days, people who understand your problems, and general physical activity.

Their findings support the hypothesis that survivors with greater levels of cognitive reserve would be less likely to report confusion or memory loss. In general, people who have probable PTSD are less likely to report confusion or memory loss if they have higher levels of educational attainment, are married and employed, have at least three close friends, have people to talk to, and are physically active.

Sources consulted:

Howard E. Alper, et al. 2020. “Post-9/11 Mental Health Comorbidity Predicts Self-Reported Confusion or Memory Loss in World Trade Center Health Registry Enrollees.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17: 7330.

Kacie Seil, Shengchao Yu and Howard Alper. 2019. “A Cognitive Reserve and Social Support-Focused Latent Class Analysis to Predict Self-Reported Confusion or Memory Loss among Middle-Aged World Trade Center Health Registry Enrollees.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16: 1401.


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