Research has found a link between depression and memory loss. So, what can you do to address it, and what are the signs that you should reach out for help?
We all know that depression affects the way that we think and feel, but what you may not be aware of is the way that it can impact our memory. A foggy brain, forgetfulness, confusion, along with difficulty focusing, making decisions, and retaining information, are all things that can come hand-in-hand with depression.
In 2013, a study published in Behavioural Brain Research gave 98 participants a memory task, which required them to identify objects on a screen that were identical, or similar, to an object they had previously seen. What the researchers observed was that participants with depression struggled with the task, and were unable to do so successfully. Many similar studies have explored the link between depression and memory loss, and a 2018 analysis of previous research, published in Psychological Medicine, confirmed this robust link.
With that in mind, memory loss is something that many people living with depression may be affected by. Despite that, it’s not as widely recognised by broader society as it should be – particularly considering the evidence that shows how the more severe the depression, the more severe the memory loss that can accompany it.
And memory loss is an important thing to talk about because of the ways that it can affect more than just our progress on our to-do list. It can interfere with our relationships with others and our success at work. It can impact self-care and health-related activities, lead to feelings of isolation, affect our self-esteem, and make carrying out daily activities even more difficult than they can already be.
So, what do you need to know about it?
Depression affects brain structure
There is a link between depression and changes in brain structure and function, which includes changes in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala – regions that play a role in cognitive executive function, which includes things like planning, decision-making, and emotion processing.
Because these regions are all linked via neural circuits, when one region is impacted, so are the others, which is what can lead to impaired cognitive function, ergo, memory loss and forgetfulness during periods of depression.
But, before we go any further, it’s important to note that there can be other causes for memory loss – from vitamin deficiencies to Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetfulness, which includes forgetting facts over time, being absent-minded, forgetting minor details, or misplacing things, are examples of common ways you may be affected. But memory problems that impair your daily life, including getting lost in familiar places, misplacing objects in unusual places, or regularly forgetting things you were just told, are signs you should speak to your GP.
Forgetfulness can sometimes put a strain on the relationships in your life, as it can be misinterpreted as a lack of care about whatever it is you may have forgotten. This can be the case in romantic partnerships, friendships, and workplace relationships, too. You may find that others become frustrated with you, or begin to doubt your ability or dedication – all of which can add another level of pressure during an already difficult time.
So, if you think that you may be experiencing some memory loss associated with depression, the best thing to do is to speak to the people in your life about it. This way, they’ll understand that you’re not forgetting things because you don’t care about them, and you can then work together to create strategies for coping – such as calendar reminders, check-ins, and scheduling.
How to deal with memory loss and depression
Often having a dual function of easing depression and low-mood, at the same time as improving working memory, there are some steps you can take to address the memory loss that can accompany depression.
According to 2015 research published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, exercise has been shown to help with depression-associated memory loss. Aerobic exercise – such as a brisk walk, running, swimming, or cycling – has previously been associated with increases in both white and grey matter volume in the frontal and temporal cortical regions of the brain. The 2015 study looked at those with major depressive disorder who reported cognitive impairment, and found that exercise improved their spatial working memory (the ability to keep track of where things are), psychomotor speed (the ability to maintain information over a brief period of time), visuospatial memory (the ability to spot patterns and keep track of moving objects), and executive function.
Diet and supplements
As mentioned, forgetfulness and depression can be symptoms of vitamin deficiencies. Supplements, therefore, can make a difference to memory loss during depression – although it’s a good idea to confirm any suspected deficiencies with your GP before starting to take new supplements, particularly if you take other medication.
Vitamin B deficiency can affect your memory function, while also influencing depressive symptoms. Folic acid helps the body make healthy red blood cells and, combined with antidepressants, has been found to relieve some symptoms of depression. Likewise, vitamin D has been associated with mood disorders and depression. You can make sure you’re getting these vitamins by taking supplements in the form of tablets, chewable gummies, or supplement drinks. But you can also get them naturally – B vitamins and folic acids through eating leafy greens, and vitamin D from sunlight.
A 2018 systematic review, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, showed that talking therapies had been found to increase activation in the prefrontal cortex – which links to brain responsiveness and flexibility, things which can improve our cognitive ability. But, what’s more, talking therapies can also help you deal with some of the emotions that you may feel around memory loss and forgetfulness, and help you to develop self-compassionate strategies while moving forward with other tools.
If all of this is sounding familiar, the important thing to keep in mind is that you’re not alone in what you’re experiencing with depression impacting memory. Speak to the people in your life about what you’re going through, and cut yourself some slack if you drop the ball every now and then. With time, and support, there are things you can do to feel more like yourself again.