Depression And Memory Loss: The Facts To Know

Reviewed by Rashonda Douthit, LCSW

Published 08/08/2022

Depression is generally seen as a mental health disorder characterized by changes in mood and feelings of sadness. It is observed via different research that it can affect some important aspects of your life if it becomes severe. One of the areas it can seriously affect is your memory. Researchers have linked depression to memory problems such as confusion and forgetfulness. It’s also shown that when you experience depression, you may experience difficulty concentrating, remembering, focusing, or making decisions. And apart from depression, other mental health conditions that can result in poor memory include anxiety and stress.

Several individuals diagnosed with depression were observed by researchers in a study in 2013 that they could have problems identifying objects on a screen that looked the same as an object seen by them previously. The explanation given to this by researchers was that depression can diminish people's memory. Another study in 2015 resulted in a similar justification — they showed that short-term memory loss may occur during depression. Depression is seen to only cause short-term memory loss and not affect procedural and long-term memory.

What Are The Symptoms Of Depression and Memory Loss?

Depression is a common mental disorder that can be overwhelming. You may see symptoms that will give you the clarity that you may be experiencing depression. The National Institute of Mental Health shows that you must see the symptoms for at least two weeks before being diagnosed with depression. It is important to see your doctor or a licensed mental health professional.  As you await your scheduled appointment, click here for an online depression test. The following are some of the depressive symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, anxious, hopeless, or numb
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in hobbies or activities you had once enjoyed
  • Decreased energy and fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Pains and aches
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Feelings of guilt, shame, powerlessness, or worthlessness
  • Sleeping problems
  • Changes in appetite and weight (loss or gain)
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What Are The Causes Of Memory Loss?

According to MedlinePlus, memory loss or amnesia is seen as "unusual forgetfulness. " It is a condition that can make you forget new events, unable to recall memories or both. It's shown as transient or for a short time or deteriorates over time, depending on the cause. The following are some of the causes of memory loss:

  • Medications
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Anesthesia from recent surgery
  • Brain tumor or infection
  • Lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Emotional trauma
  • Brain surgery or heart bypass surgery

Cancer treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy, or bone marrow transplant

  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Mental disorders such as depression, dissociative disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Certain types of seizures
  • Migraine
  • Neurodegenerative illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Huntington’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease
  • Head injury or concussion
  • Electroconvulsive therapy
  • Alcoholism or substance use disorder

How Is Memory Loss Diagnosed?

To know to what extent your memory problems may have affected you, your doctor may need to perform a physical examination, ask some questions, and perform an electroencephalogram for brain capacity test, or run blood tests and imagining tests (such as MRI—magnetic resonance imaging). Also, you may be referred to a neurologist or psychiatrist by your doctor.  It will be important to tell your doctor about any of the following:

  • If you are on a new medication
  • The quantity of the alcohol you take and how often
  • If you were ill recently
  • If you had an accident or you have head injuries
  • If there changes in your daily routine
  • Your efforts to treat your memory issues and how effective they have been
  • The time the memory problems developed and how it began
  • If it's recently accompanied by depression, anxiety, or sadness
  • If you do take over counter or presentation drugs regularly and their dosages
  • The tasks you find difficult to start or complete

What Are The Effects Of Depression And Memory Loss?

There are a number of ways depression and memory loss can affect you. If you are going through both mental health challenges, you may experience the following:

  • Aphasia: Aphasia refers to the partial or absolute loss of language skills because of brain damage. Depression and memory loss can make you forget a specific word you intend to use.
  • You may forget the occurrences you read in a book recently
  • You may forget what you discussed with someone the previous day
  • You may develop trouble storing several things in your memory
  • You may find it difficult to remember some specific things about your autobiographical history

How Does Depression Cause Memory Loss Or Forgetfulness?

Researchers have established that depression can negatively interfere with your thinking skills associated with memory. These skills may include information processing, attention, and executive functions (such as memory retrieval). There are different things depression may cause that may contribute to memory loss. The following are some of these things:

  • Physical Changes To The Brain: Physical changes to the brain caused by depression can contribute to memory loss. It's described that when you experience an episode of depression, your body responds to stress and releases cortisol (a steroid hormone). Excessive cortisol in your brain can stop new brain cells in the hippocampus (it assists your brain with the formation, organization, and storage of memories) from growing— consequently, this can make it shrink. This implies that the depressive episodes that activate stress response may affect your memory
  • Sleep Disruptions: Sleep quality has a great connection with mental health. It's always advisable when you're experiencing depression to get enough sleep because sleep deprivation can aggravate your condition. Clinically, depression is characterized by symptoms such as changes in sleep habits and fatigue. When the quality of your sleep is affected, it can interfere with your cognitive function. The imbalance of some brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that help regulate your mood and sleep can be associated with depression. This imbalance may be why depressed people experience hypersomnia (too much sleep) or insomnia (trouble sleeping).

Based on the fact that sleep problems can affect your cognitive function, such as response time and visual memory, researchers recommended that researchers prevent impaired cognitive function and help your brain perform well, most people need 7-9 hours of sleep daily.

  • The Side Effects Of Some Antidepressants:When it comes to the prescription of medications, a doctor may prescribe antidepressants to relieve the symptoms of depression. However, certain antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclics may have side effects like short-term memory loss or difficulty concentrating. To deal with short-term memory loss caused by antidepressants, you may be required to take a medication-free depression treatment such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
  • The Early Experience Of Depression And Anxiety: Depression early-on in your 20s, 30s, and 40s may increase the risk of developing cognitive and memory impairment in your 50s. Researchers show that experiencing more depression episodes and anxiety in early adulthood may lead to a decline in memory function when you become an older adult.

How To Treat Depression And Memory Loss

Depression and Memory loss, just like other mental health challenges, can be addressed if the appropriate treatment options are recommended. It's pertinent to know that memory loss in depression does not have a specific treatment; however, there are three specific approaches used to treat cognitive impairment common to other mental illnesses. They are as follows:

  • Remediation Techniques: Remediation techniques are drills and exercises that may help hone and improve your memory. These may include a well-designed computer program.
  • Compensatory Techniques: Compensatory techniques help people learn different ways to remember things. These may include the use of mnemonic devices.
  • Adaptive Approaches: Adaptive approaches Involve changes in the environment. One of the approaches you can use is a memory aid— this may be using a recorder to get down what you need to remember later.

When To See A Doctor

It's always advisable to see your doctor when you begin to see the symptoms of depression, including forgetfulness, or if you can notice some signs of memory loss. So, when depression starts to cause memory loss, you should not waste any precious time but make it important to see a licensed mental health professional. You should know that even milder memory loss may be an indication that you may experience a more serious condition. Get your doctor informed if your condition deteriorates or interferes with your day-to-day activities.

If your doctor believes that the cause of your memory loss is depression, ensure that you inquire about the best techniques that can help improve your memory.  

There are other ways to manage depressive symptoms. These may include psychotherapy (counseling or talk therapy). A professionally trained therapist can help you cope with the symptoms of depression, including forgetfulness and memory loss.