For many, memory loss goes hand in hand with aging. Grandma doesn’t remember where she left her purse or calls you by your sister’s name. That’s all pretty normal, and it doesn’t severely impact her daily activity.
When memory loss does start to impact a person’s daily life, it could be dementia, a set of symptoms that includes impairment in memory, reasoning, judgement, language, and thinking.
Dementia is associated with several diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and Huntington’s disease.
If you don’t have one of those progressive dementia-associated disorders, but your short-term forgetfulness has become a big problem, depression might be the culprit (more on that in a few).
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, these are signs that you might be depressed:
- changes in sleep
- changes in appetite
- lack of concentration
- loss of energy
- lack of interest in activities
- hopelessness or guilty thoughts
- changes in movement (less activity or agitation)
- physical aches and pains
- suicidal thoughts
For one thing, depression makes you more likely to remember negative events than positive events, compounding the whole “life sucks” feeling.
Depression can also make it hard to remember upcoming appointments, what you did last weekend, or the next step in baking those chocolate chip cookies you really hoped would make you feel better.
Read on to find out what the connection is between depression and forgetfulness.
People with depression find it harder to remember good things that happen to them, but oh so easy to remember the bad times. Research shows that may be because of how stress impacts the hippocampus and inhibits dopamine neurons.
Stress can trigger and exacerbate depression and may create changes in your brain that make the good stuff harder to remember and the bad stuff easier to recall.
Someone with depression tends to remember parts of their past as vague and general, lacking detail for specific events.
In a 2018 report, researchers wrote that overgeneral memory is connected with longer duration of depression, possibly because of impaired executive function and problem-solving.
The researchers also noted that memory problems can in turn worsen depression, stating “a bias to repeatedly retrieve painful memories could clearly sustain a depressive episode…”
In another study from 2017, researchers found a connection between depression, inflammation, and memory loss. The study showed that depression and inflammation can each individually worsen memory, but together, they have an even bigger impact on memory.
People with depression may have trouble with their “working memory,” the short-term memory process for holding information while you actively complete a task.
For example, if you’re making cookies, you have to remember that you were going to grab two eggs between reading the recipe and walking to the refrigerator. If not, you’re staring into the fridge wondering, “what did I come over here for?”
Imaging of both depressed and non-depressed brains showed that people with depression need more effort to complete a task using working memory, possibly due to their inability to filter out irrelevant information at the same time.
In fact, scientists could tell which participants had major depressive disorder by studying images of their brains during an emotional task using working memory.
In addition to depression, there are other reversible reasons for memory loss. These things can temporarily jam up your memory cogs:
- medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion
- minor head trauma or injury
- alcohol use
- vitamin B-12 deficiency can impact the body’s ability to maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells
- brain diseases that cause a tumor or infection in the brain.
- electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), sometimes used to treat resistant cases of depression, mania, catatonia, and dementia
What’s more, ECT can cause retrograde amnesia for events that occured before treatment or memory loss around the time you received ECT treatment.
To determine if your forgetfulness is related to depression, another of the reversible causes listed above, or dementia, see your doctor for a physical and cognitive exam.
Because your own memory probably isn’t in top form, take a close friend or family member to answer questions. These are the ones you’re likely to be asked:
- When did your memory problems begin?
- What medications, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements, do you take and in what doses?
- Have you recently started a new drug?
- What tasks do you find difficult?
- What have you done to cope with memory problems?
- How much alcohol do you drink?
- Have you recently been in an accident, fallen, or injured your head?
- Have you recently been sick?
- Do you feel sad, depressed, or anxious?
- Have you recently had a major loss, a major change, or stressful event in your life?
Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist or order blood tests and brain imaging to identify the cause of your memory loss.
If you’re diagnosed with depression and your doctor believes it to be the root of your memory loss, there’s plenty of treatment options to improve both problems.
The most common treatments for depression are antidepressant medication and psychotherapy. Severe depression that doesn’t respond to those treatments may call for ECT.
Newer treatment options include repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and vagus nerve stimulation (VNS).
The National Institute of Mental Health also suggests these lifestyle modifications for living with depression:
- Try to be active and exercise regularly.
- Set realistic goals for yourself.
- Try to spend time with other people and confide in a trusted friend or relative.
- Try not to isolate yourself, and let others help you.
- Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately.
- Postpone important decisions, such as getting married or divorced, or changing jobs until you feel better. Discuss decisions with others who know you well and have a more objective view of your situation.
- Continue to educate yourself about depression.
If your memory isn’t what it used to be and you’re feeling down, depression could be the cause. Living with depression takes up a lot of your mental bandwidth, making it harder to remember what you need to keep up with daily life.
And depression actually screws with your ability to remember happy times, making bad memories easier to recall than good ones. Depression perpetuates itself with mind tricks like that, but there is help available.
See your healthcare provider to rule out other causes of memory loss and get treatment.