Memory problems are a common and frustrating potential symptom of depression, a condition that affects about 21 million Americans.
“Memory issues and cognitive problems can make everyday functioning harder and, honestly, more dangerous as individuals with significant impairment can forget to turn the stove off, may take the same medication twice or even three times, can run through red lights while driving, and can even get lost,” says James C. Jackson, PsyD, the director of behavioral health in the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
If you’re struggling with memory issues due to depression, know that there are steps you can take to address it and lessen its impact on your life.
What Causes Memory Loss in Major Depressive Disorder?
When you hear the term “memory loss,” you may think of losing a memory that was once there, says Avigail Lev, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Bay Area CBT Center in San Francisco. “[But with depression,] the issue is not so much memory loss but rather obstacles to storing, consolidating, and retrieving memories,” Dr. Lev explains.
Some people with major depressive disorder (MDD) experience memory issues because the condition can lead to changes in parts of the brain like the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory, learning, and regulating emotion, adds Dr. Jackson.
Research shows that some people with MDD have significantly lower brain volume in the hippocampus than people without MDD. This shrinkage of the hippocampus is thought to contribute to memory problems in people with depression, according to a review published in Trends in Neurosciences.
People who aren’t experiencing depression gain hundreds of new neurons (nerve cells) in the hippocampus each day, according to Aron Tendler, MD, a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of BrainsWay, a manufacturer of transcranial magnetic stimulation devices for conditions like MDD. But the aforementioned review published in Trends in Neurosciences indicates that people with chronic depression don’t gain as many new neurons, often as a result of stress, which results in lower volume in the hippocampus, Dr. Tendler adds.
In addition, memory issues in people with depression are often linked to problems with attention and concentration, explains Jackson. Because of attention or concentration difficulties, which are also common symptoms of depression, sometimes information doesn’t get stored properly in the brain as a memory, Jackson explains.
Lev adds that if someone with depression also has sleep problems, that can also impact the ability of the hippocampus to process and store memories. “During REM sleep, the hippocampus processes information and moves it from short-term memory to long-term memory,” she says. Sleep problems (another potential symptom of depression) can interfere with the brain’s ability to store long-term memories, she explains.
There’s also some evidence that antipsychotic medications, benzodiazepines, and some antidepressants may contribute to memory or cognitive issues, says Jackson. For instance, a study showed that anticholinergic medications were associated with an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment and cognitive decline in older adults, especially among those with genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Certain antidepressants and antipsychotics have anticholinergic effects.
Potential Consequences of Memory Loss
Memory issues can be a troubling symptom for some people with depression. It can be frustrating if you consistently have trouble remembering where you put things, events that happened, or things people said.
Left unaddressed, memory issues can have a significant impact on other areas of your life. For instance, some people with depression may find it challenging to make decisions about the future or make long-term plans, says Lev.
At work, memory issues could affect your performance in ways such as missing deadlines or forgetting important parts of essential tasks. Depression can also affect your working memory, or your brain’s ability to use information without losing track of what you’re doing, Lev adds.
Memory issues could also lead to relationship challenges, especially if you have trouble remembering important occasions, obligations, or plans, adds Jackson.
Research shows memory issues may linger in the long term among people with MDD. A review of data from 252 studies showed that problems with cognitive functions, including attention, working memory, and long-term memory, can continue even after someone experiences remission from a major depressive episode. These issues tend to happen over long periods of time, which is why early treatment is so important.
4 Steps People With Depression Can Take to Manage Memory Loss
The good news is that there are steps you can take to manage memory problems associated with MDD and lessen its impact on your life. These four tips can help.
1. Stick to Your Depression Treatment
A good first step is to talk with your healthcare provider about your concerns. If you have depression and you’re already being treated for it, be sure to stick to your treatment. Addressing the root cause of your memory issues — your depression — can help lessen their impact, says Jackson.
If you suspect you have depression, your provider can help you get an appropriate diagnosis and seek treatment. The most common treatments for depression are psychotherapy and medication. If you’re already in treatment for depression, you might discuss whether you feel your current treatment is helping or whether additional treatment options could help ease your symptoms.
If you’re older and concerned about memory loss or cognitive problems, Jackson recommends getting evaluated by a neuropsychologist, who can determine the core cause of your memory issues. They especially warrant attention among adults over 65, who are at a higher risk of developing memory-related conditions like dementia. Older age and depression are both linked to an increased risk of dementia, according to the World Health Organization.
2. Exercise Regularly
Including regular exercise in your treatment plan can help improve your depression, which in turn may help lessen symptoms like memory or cognitive issues, says Jackson. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cognitive decline in general. Research also suggests that exercise can help people with MDD live longer and can improve mental and physical outcomes overall.
3. Find Ways to Ease Stress
Along with depression, chronic stress can also contribute to memory issues, says Tendler. A systematic review of 13 studies shows that stress can interfere with the ability to recall long-term memories.
Certain stress-management techniques, such as meditation or mindfulness (a practice in which you try to stay focused on the present moment rather than the past or future), can help ease stress, which in turn could help improve memory issues over time, says Lev. Other tried-and-true ways to lessen stress if you have depression, according to the Mental Health Foundation, include eating a nutritious diet, exercising, limiting alcohol or drugs, and getting enough sleep each night.
4. Try to Steer Clear of Alcohol and Recreational Drugs
Substance use disorders commonly co-occur with mental health conditions such as depression. Approximately one-third of people with MDD also have a substance use disorder, according to American Addiction Centers.
Substances like alcohol or drugs may feel like they offer relief in the moment, but misusing these substances can ultimately cause more issues in the long term. Research shows excessive alcohol consumption can negatively affect your cognitive health and can cause sleep problems, according to Jackson.
What’s more, alcohol can make depressive symptoms worse. According to Clearview Treatment Programs, alcohol can intensify and prolong certain symptoms of depression, including memory or concentration issues. That’s why staying away from alcohol and recreational drugs may be your best bet.