Can depression cause memory loss? What you need to know

By

Ella Marcantonio

|

June 23, 2021

older woman wondering about if depression can cause memory loss
Memory loss and memory impairment can happen for many reasons, including depression.

Memory impairment can happen for many reasons, but there’s one cause that may surprise you: depression. This mental health condition can have a significant impact on cognitive processes, like thinking and remembering. Here’s what you need to know about depression and memory loss, including solutions for memory impairment and when to seek professional help.

For people with anxiety and depression, purposefully engaging in pleasurable activities can improve mental health.
Memory loss and memory impairment can happen for many reasons, including depression.

Memory impairment can happen for many reasons, but there’s one cause that may surprise you: depression. This mental health condition can have a significant impact on cognitive processes, like thinking and remembering. Here’s what you need to know about depression and memory loss, including solutions for memory impairment and when to seek professional help.

What causes memory loss?

While depression is a possible cause of memory loss, it isn’t the only one. Short-term memory loss and impairment can have a number of possible causes.

Here are some of the most common reasons people experience memory loss. Fortunately, many of them can be reversible:

  • Head injuries, which can cause both memory loss and impairment
  • Certain medications, including benzodiazepines, narcotics, seizure meds, and others
  • Hypothyroidism, which can lead to forgetfulness
  • Low vitamin B-12 levels, most common for older people
  • Substance use and addiction, especially alcoholism
  • Mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
  • Diseases that impact your brain, such as brain tumors

Long-term memory loss can be caused by:

  • Aging: memory loss is a normal part of growing older
  • Dementia: an umbrella term that refers to a group of symptoms, including memory loss
  • Diseases in the brain causing it progressive damage, including Alzheimer’s disease

Does depression cause memory loss?

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting between 11.1% to 14.5% of people worldwide. It’s well known to feature symptoms such as sadness, anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), fatigue, hopelessness, irritability, sleep issues, and eating disturbances.

What’s mentioned with less frequency is how depression can impact your cognition, causing impairments like difficulty concentrating, slower processing speed when thinking, and short and long-term memory impairment.

Studies have found a correlation between cognitive impairment and mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.

One of the most challenging symptoms of depression is the way it alters thinking. Depressive disorders can cause something called cognitive distortions. In simple terms, this means that a depressed brain often skews life with a negative slant which may feel accurate but isn’t really.

Cognitive restructuring is one helpful cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skill for depression. You can use this tool to reframe negative thinking, helping improve symptoms of depression and prevent it in the future.

Learn how to battle depression naturally, using skills and behaviors like this one.  

There are many unknowns in terms of the exact way depression impacts the brain. But we know that it can change thinking, slow down cognitive processing, and lead to memory loss or impairment. Some research indicates a correlation between depression and problems with memory.

Research on depression and memory loss

Almost 40% of people with depression report difficulty with cognitive function. One large meta-study on depression and memory found a significant association between depression and impaired memory.

There’s also evidence that depression distorts memories. Studies have shown that people with depression recall autobiographical events with a negatively skewed perspective. Plus, the same research shows that depression can make positive memories feel less accessible and impactful.

Memory changes can also occur as a response to very emotionally intense and impactful situations. You may have experienced this yourself. Many people who have endured a physical or emotional trauma can remember that powerful, historical event with unusual clarity—what’s referred to as a “flashbulb memory.”

Unlike what you may have seen on TV, comprehensive memory loss syndromes are very rare. However, you might notice brief or thematic memory gaps in relation to intensely distressing situations. In some cases, a person can disassociate due to trauma and forget key details of the moments of duress.

Solutions for memory loss

The fundamental recommendations for improving overall health help address depression and memory issues, as well.

Sleep

Getting quality sleep regularly is a critical way to take care of your brain. Why? One reason is that good quality sleep actually boosts the consolidation of learning into memory.

Plus, poor sleep quality is a common feature of depression. Research shows that poor sleep quality in those living with major depression has a negative impact on memory. Review the sleep hygiene tips and practice at least a few items on the list to see if they provide some relief.

Physical activity

Research indicates that cardiovascular exercise benefits attention and memory.  It can be challenging to feel motivated to exercise when you’re depressed, especially because depression causes physical symptoms like fatigue. But even moderate movements can benefit the body and mind.

Psychiatric medication

Antidepressants vary in their impact on sleep quality and patterns. Some antidepressants alleviate sleep issues, while others can contribute to sleep disturbances like insomnia. The effect on sleep can also vary across individuals taking the same medication.

Sometimes these issues improve after time, and in other cases, they persist. This is why it’s best to consult with your healthcare practitioner about the medications that’ll be most helpful for you. Always keep your healthcare team informed if you’re experiencing any troublesome side effects.

Memory training

There are some known methods for improving learning and memory, such as mnemonic aids, elaborative rehearsal, and information chunking. Unfortunately, these might not be sufficient to help with the kinds of memory distortion and impairment that are due to depression.

Here’s the good news: teams are researching memory-enhancing practices for people with depression.

Here are some methods people use for memory training:

  • Memory specificity training: often used for depressive disorders, this protocol helps improve your recall of specific details of autobiographical memories.
  • Method-of-loci: this strategy uses familiar spatial orientations to improve your recall and your ability to retrieve information.
  • Memory rescripting: you can use this technique to rewrite difficult memories by imagining a more positive outcome.
  • Real-time fMRI neurofeedback training: this training helps you learn to work with brain activity in specific regions of the brain.

If you want to try memory training skills or habits, it’s best to discuss them with your medical team.

When to seek professional help

It’s a good idea to seek professional advice if you notice symptoms interfering with your ability to function for more than 2 weeks. If you’re concerned about depression and memory loss or impairment, that’s also a good enough reason to talk with a healthcare professional.

There are memory tests designed to measure the fitness of your memory, as well as other cognitive processes. Your healthcare provider can evaluate you for impairment and look for conditions that impact memory and cognition.

Takeaway

  • There are many possible causes for memory loss or impairment, including depression.
  • Depression is correlated with memory impairments in almost 40% of cases.
  • You can take measures to preserve and strengthen your memory, including sleep, exercise, meds, and memory training.
  • If you’re worried about depression, memory loss, or both, please consult with a medical professional.
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By

Ella Marcantonio

|

June 23, 2021