Depression has been linked to memory problems, such as forgetfulness or confusion. It can also make it difficult to focus on work or other tasks, make decisions, or think clearly. Stress and anxiety can also lead to poor memory.
Depression is associated with short-term memory loss. It doesn’t affect other types of memory, such as long-term memory and procedural memory, which controls motor skills.
Other symptoms of depression include:
- feeling sad, anxious, numb, or hopeless
- a loss of interest in activities or hobbies
- having little energy and feeling fatigued
- feeling restless or irritable
- feeling shame, guilt, worthlessness, or powerlessness
- a loss of appetite and drastic changes in weight
- having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- thinking about death or suicide
- having physical problems, such as headaches, stomachaches, and back pain
What the research says
Researchers in one 2013 study discovered that people with depression couldn’t identify objects on a screen that were identical or similar to an object they had seen previously. According to researchers, this suggests that memory can be diminished as a result of depression. Researchers in a 2015 study came to a similar conclusion. They concluded that depression might cause short-term memory loss.
Other causes of memory loss
Other reasons you may experience memory loss can include the following:
- Normal age-related memory loss is common and manageable. One example of this is forgetting where you put your glasses but remembering later in the day.
- Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It can cause progressive, irreparable brain damage and memory loss.
- Mild cognitive impairment can alter thinking skills and eventually progress to Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.
- Minor head injury or trauma can trigger slight memory problems, even if you didn't lose consciousness.
- Forgetfulness is a potential side effect of certain medications.
- Brain tumors or brain infections can affect your memory or trigger dementia-like symptoms.
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency can create problems with your memory. This is because you're not maintaining healthy nerve cells and red blood cells.
- Alcoholism or drug abuse can impair your mental state and abilities. This can also occur when alcohol interacts with medications.
- Hypothyroidism slows your metabolism, which can lead to memory problems and other issues with thinking.
- Brain or nerve damage caused by diseases such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis can cause memory problems. A 2013 study found that people with depression have a greater risk of developing Parkinson's disease.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) can cause memory loss. ECT alters brain chemistry, which can reverse the symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses. If you have ECT, your doctor will perform it while you’re under general anesthesia. During ECT, your doctor sends small electric currents through your brain, triggering a brief seizure. People can experience confusion and short-term memory loss after receiving ECT treatments.
Diagnosing memory loss
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you questions to help them identify the cause of your memory loss. This can also help them determine the extent of your memory problems. Your doctor may want to know:
- when you started experiencing memory problems and for how long
- if you’ve been feeling depressed, anxious, or sad recently
- if you’re taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs regularly and at what dose
- if you started a new medication
- what tasks are difficult to start or complete
- how you've treated your memory issues and if it has worked
- how often and how much alcohol you drink
- if you injured your head or had an accident
- if you were recently ill
- if your daily routine has changed
Your doctor may also evaluate your memory and thinking skills with a short question-and-answer test and perform an electroencephalogram to test your brain activity. They may also run blood tests and imaging tests of your brain, such as an MRI, to help them make a diagnosis. They could also refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist or a psychiatrist, for diagnosis.
How to manage memory loss
Memory loss due to depression is typically managed with regular counseling or therapy and antidepressants. Leading an active lifestyle and getting involved in your community can also elevate your mood.
You can also manage your memory loss by using memory aids. Depending on your needs, this could mean using alarm clocks to keep track of time, color-coding household items, or placing safety notes with instructions on appliances. You may also consider getting a home care provider to help you as needed. You may also consider joining a support group.
Medications that can improve memory and brain function in people with Alzheimer's disease or other neurological disorders are also available.
The bottom line
If you have depression, chances are you’re experiencing a memory issue. Memory loss due to depression can either improve or worsen depending on your emotional and mental state.
If you notice that you’re having problems with your memory, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. They can work with you to determine the cause. From there, they can create an effective treatment plan to elevate your depression and improve your memory.