Social Security Disability Benefits and Memory Loss

Social Security will consider memory loss as a limitation in the type of work you can do.

Memory loss is often claimed as an issue on disability applications; sometimes as a primary condition and sometimes as secondary to another medical condition. In some individuals, memory loss may be the result of a result of a physical problem, such as a stroke or other brain injury; in others it may be the result of an ongoing mental condition, such as severe depression. Memory problems can also result from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue. Regardless of the cause of onset, memory loss is judged by disability examiners based on its severity; that is, the degree to which it limits your ability to work.

When Memory Loss Qualifies for Disability Benefits

In order to collect disability benefits on the basis of memory loss, you must be able to demonstrate, through medical records, that you have a physical or mental condition that causes memory loss, and that this condition is severe enough not only to prevent you from using skills needed to perform your prior job, but is also severe enough to prevent you from adjusting to a less mentally demanding job or learning new skills that could help you obtain gainful employment in a new position to which you may be suited. If you cannot remember even very short and simple instructions and remember locations and work-like procedures, for example, Social Security is likely to agree there is no job you can learn to do.

Social Security will evaluate severe memory loss under its listing for “neurocognitive disorders,” listing 12.02. This listing was significantly updated in 2017. To qualify under this listing, you be able to show that your abilities have significantly declined in one or more of the following areas:

  • learning and remembering (recent memory in particular, as this this makes learning difficult)
  • using language (inability to recall words, misuse of words)
  • paying attention to tasks or listening to others, especially if complex
  • executive function (planning and judgment)
  • social judgment (ability to know proper social behavior in differing circumstances), or
  • physical coordination.

If you have a significant decline in one of the above areas, a psychiatrist or psychologist who works for Social Security will then attempt to measure how much your functioning is limited. You must either have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a “marked” (severe) limitation in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (ability to understand instructions, learn new things, apply new knowledge to tasks)
  • concentrating on tasks and completing tasks at a reasonable speed
  • adapting or managing oneself (distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable work performance; making plans for yourself independently of others; being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions, and having practical personal skills), and
  • interacting with others.

Note that Social Security defines “marked” as less than extreme, but worse than moderate. Marked and extreme are matters of professional judgment to be made by the Social Security psychiatrist or psychologist reviewing the medical evidence.

If you are unable to meet this listing (for example, your limitations are found to be moderate, not marked or extreme), Social Security will look decide if you might qualify for a medical vocational allowance. For more information, see our article on how Social Security decides if you can work with a mental deficit.

Important Medical Records

It is important to supply Social Security with a complete medical and work history. Without these records, a disability claims examiner will be unable to make a decision in your case. It is helpful if your medical records show that your physician has referred you for some sort of mental function testing that demonstrates you are unable to perform simple, repetitive tasks involving short-term and long-term memory. A signed statement from your treating physician detailing both specific symptoms of your condition and how they affect your memory would be helpful to your case as well. For more information, see our section on medical evidence for disability.

Social Security Consultative Exam

The Social Security administration (SSA) may require that you attend a consultative exam (CE). A consultative exam is performed by a doctor who works for SSA, and is often used as a means of evaluating claims with symptoms that are not readily apparent, such as chronic fatigue or insomnia. In the case of memory loss, a CE will most likely include a Weschler Memory Scale (WMS) exam, which tests a wide range of memory functions, including the ability to recall past events, current events, number sequences, photographs, pictures, word associations, and so on. Having memory loss is not a valid excuse for missing a CE, so ask a friend or relative to write down the date and plan to attend the CE with you if at all possible. Failure to attend a consultative exam is grounds for immediate dismissal of your disability claim. For more information, see our section on consultative exams.

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