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Can depression cause memory loss?

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world. Though people have been suffering from the disorder for centuries, there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to what causes depression, and how it affects the human body and brain. Studies suggest that depression is caused by a mixture of genetics and an individual’s past and present environment. Under the immense weight of depression, what may seem like easy tasks to some, like getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, can seem purposeless and insurmountable. The symptoms of depression vary for each person, but there are common symptoms that doctors and mental health professionals look for when making a diagnosis — one of which is memory loss. Can depression cause memory loss? Research suggests that there is a link between depression and cognitive impairment. 

Symptoms of depression

When people think of depression, they often think of the generic feelings of sadness — but there is more to depression than meets the eye. If left untreated, symptoms of depression won’t go away — in fact, they can continue to worsen. The most common symptoms of depression include:

  • Feelings of despair and guilt that last longer than two weeks
  • Low energy and constant fatigue
  • Disinterest in all your activities and hobbies, and loss of motivation
  • Disruption in sleep patterns and loss of appetite

Depression can also cause physical symptoms: 

  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitation
  • Digestive issues
  • Change in weight
  • Loss of sex drive

While depression is mainly associated with the symptoms above, a lesser-known symptom is cognitive impairment and issues with memory loss. That can look like constantly forgetting appointments, getting behind on bills, and having a harder time multitasking. Because depression affects the brain, it is a lot harder to understand than other purely physical illnesses. This is why depression is considered to be one of the invisible disabilities alongside PTSD and anxiety. So, how exactly can depression cause memory loss?

The link between memory loss and depression

If you find yourself forgetting an appointment or forgetting to pay a bill here and there, does that mean you have depression? And is it leading to memory loss? Not necessarily, but it may be relevant if you’ve had depression in the past, or are currently suffering from the mental health disorder. 

The consensus is that memory loss is a sign of depression. Studies suggest that those who experience depression have a harder time recalling relevant information than the general public. Memory issues are quite common in people with depression, affecting both your working memory (also known as short-term memory) and your long-term memory. Why does depression make you lose your memory? Brain image scans have shown that depression not only affects your mental health, but can also change the physical structure of your brain and its components. 

Brain regions that can be affected by depression include: 

  • The prefrontal cortex: Manages reasoning, planning, and decision-making skills (executive functioning).
  • The hippocampus: The key memory centre.  
  • The amygdala: The region that deals with emotions and the ‘fight or flight’ system 

It is important to note that brain regions are all connected. That means when one region, such as your emotions, is affected, another region such as your memory can also show changes. Studies show that MRIs from people suffering with depression display a reduction in the size of the hippocampus — which has a major role in learning and memory. This impacts how quickly and effectively the brain works during memory tasks. For people with depression and a decreased hippocampus, the brain has to work harder to recall information and must get help from additional regions of the brain to perform at the same level as people who don’t have depression. 

Although depression can cause memory loss, there is a flip side as well. A study suggests that people with depression can better recall negative adjectives from a list of words compared to those who had never been depressed before. Non-depressed people have a better memory for positive events than negative ones, whereas those suffering from depression have a stronger recall for negative events.

Replaying negative memories

Have you ever repeated an embarrassing scenario in your head, or do you repeat an argument you had with someone over and over again? This is called rumination, and it is not uncommon among people with depression and anxiety. Researchers suggest that rumination is associated with less cognitive control. So, the ability to regulate thoughts and behaviours decreases and repeating thoughts increases — leaving less room for memory tasks and thought processing. Rumination can also affect the pattern and quality of your sleep, which can also negatively influence the strength of your brain and your cognitive functions.

Other causes of memory loss

We all suffer from memory loss from time to time. For example, forgetting where you put your car keys is common and manageable. But if this is a constant recurrence, it may be time to look at what’s causing repeated memory loss. If you have a history of depression, there is likely a connection to memory loss. Other causes of memory loss include: 

  • Alzheimer’s disease is another common form of memory loss and dementia, which can cause irreparable damage to the brain. 
  • Minor head injuries and traumas can trigger memory loss.
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency can create issues in cognitive function and memory loss.

Memory loss can also stem from the treatments used for depression. ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy is a form of treatment that can cause memory loss. This treatment changes brain chemistry, which can reverse the symptoms of depression. ECT’s are done while the patient is under anesthesia. The doctor sends a small electric current through the brain, triggering a short seizure, with the possibility of onsetting short-term memory loss. For many, memory loss is worth it if the treatment is successful in reversing symptoms of certain mental health conditions. To learn more, contact your doctor. 

Diagnosing memory loss from depression

Oftentimes, those who have depression have a hard time remembering the finer details of events they have experienced. Remembering things like returning a library book, or taking a daily medication becomes much harder under the gloomy cloud of depression.

If you have depression or have experienced it in the past, and you’re having issues with memory loss and cognitive impairments, it’s important to speak to your doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor will perform a physical examination and ask questions such as: 

  • When you started experiencing cognitive impairment or memory loss.
  • If you have been feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed recently. 
  • Which tasks have become difficult to do. 
  • If you have had a head injury.
  • Which medications you are taking and at what dose.

Your doctor may also perform an electroencephalogram (EEG) to test your brain activity. An EEG is a procedure in which electrodes are pasted to certain areas of your scalp to detect tiny electrical charges that come from brain cell activity. Blood tests and MRIs may also be used to pinpoint the cause of memory loss. 

Managing memory loss

If you have been diagnosed with memory loss from depression, or pseudodementia, with the correct treatment and support, patients generally see their symptoms subside — including memory loss.  

Being diagnosed with memory loss due to depression can be a heavy subject to process but it can typically be managed with counselling and medication. Leading an active lifestyle and participating in your favourite hobbies can also help manage your symptoms and elevate your mood. One of the best ways to manage your diagnosis is to speak with others going through the same thing; ask your doctor or counsellor about support groups you can join. Adjusting to memory loss can seem insurmountable, but it is not impossible.

Treatments for depression and memory loss

Untreated depression can continue to cause memory loss. Types of treatments available include:

  • Exercise: Movement benefits working memory, attention, and processing speed. Pick an exercise you enjoy and try to participate in it 2-3 times a week. This can be as simple as a daily walk. 
  • Nutrition: Eating nutritious foods is important when it comes to cognitive functions. A study from Harvard Medical School suggests that foods such as fatty fish (like salmon, trout, and herring), berries, leafy greens, walnuts, tea and coffee are excellent brain foods that also protect your heart and blood vessels.
  • Counselling or psychotherapy such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), and IPT (Interpersonal Therapy). A counsellor can guide you to safely unpack your past to live a more vibrant and satisfying day-to-day life. They can also help you plan for your future by supporting goal-setting. 
  • Antidepressant medications work by regulating the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Depression is commonly treated with antidepressants like SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) or SNRIs (Serotonin and Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitors).

Depression is common, but it’s also complex. Episodes of depression can last for varying amounts of time and depend on the type of treatment and lifestyle an individual follows. Depression also varies in its cause — it can be due to trauma, the death or loss of a loved one, or a difficult life circumstance. It can also be an effect of genetics, environments, or a combination of all. 

Get support today

Can depression cause memory loss? Yes, and can have a serious and long-lasting effect on your daily life, making everyday tasks harder to start and complete. The good news is, depression and memory loss can be reversed. There are various ways to go about treating depression and memory loss due to depression, but treatments are not one-size-fits-all. That’s why it’s so important to speak to a counsellor or mental health professional as soon as symptoms arise. They can provide unique recommendations to fit your symptoms and lifestyle. One of the most important things to remember is that you are certainly not alone. Help is always available. At Wellin5, we provide you with online, anywhere, anytime counselling from the comfort of your own home. Our counsellors are equipped to help you deal with any symptoms of depression, giving you the support you need to feel better. Speak to a counsellor.