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A Step-by-Step Guide for Managing Memory Loss with Depression

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on July 26, 2016Written by Holly Case on July 26, 2016
Depression and memory

Memory loss is a common symptom for people with major depressive disorder (MDD). Fortunately, you can manage these effects on your memory with medical care and lifestyle changes. Keep reading to learn how MDD can lead to memory loss and what steps you can take to improve your memory function.

The link between MDD and memory loss

MDD has a profound effect on the brain. This damage is even more pronounced when young people have depression that goes untreated. Repeated episodes of depression makes future treatment less successful through a process known as “kindling.” These multiple episodes change the brain in several important ways. Many of these brain changes lead to impaired memory, along with poor attention and cognitive processing.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls memory. For people with depression, the hippocampus is smaller. MDD lasts for longer periods of time, causing more shrinkage in the hippocampus.

Other studies show that a part of the brain called the amygdala is also more active in people with MDD. The amygdala relates to memory and emotions such as fear.

The effects of memory loss

Losing your memory can be a traumatic experience. You may find it difficult to remember appointments you made or where you put your keys. This can also put a strain on your relationships and make it more difficult to perform well at work or school.

Memory loss associated with MDD shouldn’t be ignored. Make it a priority to seek treatment. As your memory improves, you may also feel more confident and competent.

Seek medical care

A variety of medications can help improve your memory. A first step for people with MDD is to take antidepressants. If you’re already taking an antidepressant, ask your healthcare provider about taking an additional medication. Many medications designed to treat Alzheimer’s disease such as donepezil (Aricept) can also improve your memory.

Make lifestyle changes

The link between depression and memory loss is strong, but depression doesn’t have just one single cause or one single treatment. Several lifestyle factors affect your risk of both depression and memory loss.

You can improve your mental health and memory function by making these lifestyle changes:

Exercise

MDD can make it difficult to get the motivation to exercise, but many studies show that it’s effective as an add-on treatment. One study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that regular exercise improved quality of life in people with severe MDD. Exercise also improves glucose tolerance. Impaired glucose tolerance has been linked to depression.

Pay attention to your diet

Several studies show a link between mental health and the quality of your diet. There’s some evidence of a correlation between depression and the modern Western diet. Traditional Japanese and Norwegian diets, along with diets of meat and vegetables, can be the most beneficial. Avoid fast food and processed food as much as possible. Always talk to your doctor or nutritionist before significantly changing your diet.

Focus on getting enough sleep

Poor sleep has been linked to depression. Without adequate sleep, the brain is unable to repair itself. Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can lead to both insomnia and depression. Ask your doctor about an overnight sleep study to rule out any possible problems. 

Use memory aids

You can find ways to compensate for memory loss. Try using reminders on your smartphone, setting alarms, or placing sticky notes on household surfaces. Set up automatic bill payment when possible. Keep daily checklists and to-do lists to help you remember what needs to be done. Consider hiring a caregiver if your memory loss is overwhelming.

Seek support

Finding a local support group can help you manage your stress and depression. Social support is a normal human need, and many people with MDD become withdrawn and socially isolated. This can make your problems worse. By relieving your depression, you may also be able to reduce its impact on your memory.

Find a therapist

Many forms of therapy can be beneficial in treating depression. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you identify negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones.

Try meditation

A study reported in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined the effect of meditation on people with memory loss. After eight weeks of 12-minute daily meditation sessions, participants reported improved cognitive function and brain blood flow. The participants also reported a more positive mood.

Avoid alcohol and smoking

Excessive drinking and smoking can speed up cognitive decline. Though these factors affect everyone, they become more pronounced when you have MDD.

Life with memory loss can be challenging. Remember to be patient with yourself and to ask for help from loved ones. With medical treatment and lifestyle changes, you can overcome bouts of depression and improve your memory function.

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