Social Security Disability Benefits and Memory Loss

Social Security will consider severe memory loss as a functional limitation that limits the type of work you can do.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Memory loss is often claimed as an impairment on disability applications. Long-term or short-term memory loss is sometimes a primary condition and sometimes secondary to another medical condition.

Memory loss can be the result of a physical problem, such as a stroke or other brain injury. It can also be caused by an ongoing mental condition, like severe depression, or result from chronic conditions, like:

Regardless of the cause, Social Security disability claims examiners judge memory loss based on its severity—that is, the degree to which it limits your ability to work.

When Memory Loss Qualifies Medically for Disability Benefits

To collect disability benefits based on memory loss, you must be able to demonstrate, through your medical records, that you have a physical or mental condition that causes your memory loss. And your forgetfulness must:

  • be severe enough to prevent you from being able to perform your prior job
  • be severe enough to prevent you from adjusting to a less mentally demanding job or learning new skills that could help you get a different job, and
  • have been going on for a year (or be expected to last a year or more).

If you can't remember short, simple instructions, locations, and work-like procedures, Social Security is likely to agree there's no job you can learn to do.

Meeting the Listing for Memory Loss or Other Cognitive Decline

For severe conditions, the Social Security Administration (SSA) offers a shortcut to disability benefits: the impairment listings. If your condition meets the criteria in an impairment listing, Social Security will grant you benefits without even looking at your work history.

Social Security evaluates severe memory loss under its listing for "neurocognitive disorders" (listing 12.02). To qualify under this listing, you must show that your abilities have significantly declined in one or more of the following areas:

  • learning and remembering (recent memory in particular, as this affects your ability to learn)
  • 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 try to measure how much your functioning is limited. You must have either an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a "marked" (severe) limitation in two:

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

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 your medical evidence.

Alternate Way to Meet the Neurocognitive Listing

Many applicants with severe memory loss have evidence of marked or extreme limitations that meet the requirements of the listing. But Social Security can find that you're disabled even without those limitations—if you can show that you're only able to function as well as you do because you get a lot of help.

Applicants living in a highly structured or protected situation can't always show they currently have the functional limitations discussed above. If that's your situation, Social Security will look for evidence that you're doing well because you have a support system you can't function without, like a group home or family members who make sure you're taking care of yourself.

You must also show that you've had memory loss for at least two years and you don't adapt well to changes in your environment or to demands that aren't already part of your daily life.

Getting Benefits Without Meeting a Listing

If your memory loss doesn't meet the requirements of the listing (for example, your limitations are moderate instead of marked or extreme), you might still qualify for disability based on a "medical-vocational allowance." Social Security will consider how memory loss affects your ability to function in a job setting using a mental residual functional capacity (mental RFC) assessment.

Your mental RFC reflects the skill level of the work Social Security believes you can still do despite your impairment(s):

  • skilled
  • semi-skilled, or
  • unskilled.

If you can still do skilled or semi-skilled work, your memory loss alone probably isn't debilitating enough to qualify for disability. But moderate memory loss might be enough if you also have another mental or physical impairment that further limits your ability to work.

If you can't do skilled or semi-skilled work, Social Security will determine your capacity to do any type of unskilled work by looking at your ability to do the following:

  • remember and carry out simple instructions
  • remember procedures
  • make work-related decisions, and
  • balance your checkbook.

For instance, if you frequently lose your train of thought while in the middle of a task, your productivity will likely suffer. If you're off-task 10-20% of the day because of impaired short-term memory, Social Security might find that you can't work in any type of job.

Learn more about how Social Security uses your mental RFC to decide if you can still work.

Important Medical Records for Social Security

Social Security will need to see your complete medical and work history. Without these records, a disability claims examiner won't be able to decide your case. It's helpful if your medical records show that your physician has referred you for mental function testing that demonstrates that you can't 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 and ability to function would also help your claim. Your doctor's statement will carry a lot of weight if it's backed up by the evidence in your medical records.

Learn more about neurocognitive disorders and the kind of medical evidence you need for disability.

Social Security Consultative Exam

Social Security might require you to attend a consultative mental exam performed by a psychologist or psychiatrist who is paid by the SSA. A consultative exam might be used to evaluate claims with symptoms that aren't readily apparent, such as chronic fatigue or insomnia. In a claim based on memory loss, a mental exam will most likely include a Weschler Memory Scale (WMS) exam, which tests a wide range of memory functions, including your ability to recall:

  • past and current events
  • number sequences
  • photographs
  • pictures
  • word associations, and
  • other memories.

Social Security won't consider your memory loss a valid excuse for missing a consultative exam. So, ask a friend or relative to write down the date and plan to attend the exam with you, if possible. Failure to attend a consultative exam is grounds for dismissal of your disability claim.

Are You Eligible for SSDI or SSI Benefits Due to Memory Loss?

There are two types of disability benefits you might be eligible to receive from the SSA:

Social Security uses the same medical requirements for SSDI and SSI disability benefits. But to receive disability, you must also meet the non-medical requirements for the specific benefit program.

To be eligible for disability through either program, you can't work enough to earn more than the substantial gainful employment (SGA) threshold. The SGA amount changes yearly—$1,470 per month for 2023 and $1,550 for 2024.

To be eligible for SSDI benefits, you also must have worked and paid enough Social Security taxes recently enough. If you don't meet the SSDI work requirement, you might qualify for SSI, which has no work requirement. But SSI is only available to those with low incomes and few assets.

Learn more about the non-medical requirements for SSDI and SSI disability benefits.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits for Memory Loss

Using Social Security's online application, you can file a claim for SSDI benefits (or SSDI and SSI together). If you're applying for just SSI disability benefits, you can start an application online, but you'll need the help of a Social Security representative (in person or by phone) to complete the process.

A Social Security disability application isn't difficult to file, but you must provide a lot of information. And if you forget to include any of the required information, Social Security might use that omission as a reason to deny your application.

If you struggle with memory loss, you should consider getting help with your disability application from someone you trust, like a:

  • friend
  • family member, or
  • caregiver.

If you don't know someone who can help you apply, you can get assistance from a representative at your local Social Security office or by phone at 800-772-1213 (TTY: 800-325-0778). You might also consider getting help with your SSDI or SSI application from a disability attorney or non-attorney advocate.

Learn how to find a Social Security lawyer or advocate who can help with your disability application.

Updated November 17, 2023

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