The Surprising Link Between Depression and Memory

Photo: Getty Images / Leonardo De La Cuesta
During the worst of her depression three years ago, motivational speaker Elena Joy Thurston says that the only relief she experienced for a long time was sleep.

“I slept 12 hours a night, took a nap [every day], and yawned through every conversation," says Thurston. "I think my body was trying to tell me to sleep until I could think straight."  The rest of the time, she says, she felt like she was constantly on the verge of tears.

Exhaustion is a well-known aspect of depression—however, Thurston says there were other consequences of her depression that she was totally surprised by. She started struggling to remember things, even everyday events like going out to dinner with friends. “It felt like my brain and the sensors were kind of shut down, so [there was] not a lot of input to be saved related to the memory,” she says. “I remember that I ate and came home and slept. So it was easy for that memory to fade away," she says—along with any other kind of specifics about the evening.

This isn't just unique to Thurston—there is some evidence that depression can temporarily affect a person's short-term memory. Thankfully, it's temporary—but still challenging for those who are experiencing it to cope. Here's what mental health experts want you to know about the surprising depression side-effect.

How are depression and memory loss related?

A lot of the connection between depression and memory loss has to do with how our body handles stress. “The link between stress, depression, and physical fatigue is quite cyclical. When someone is experiencing a greater amount of stress, they can often feel stuck, leading to a depressive state,” says Katie Cunningham, a Chicago-based therapist at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

When you're experiencing chronic stress, your body releases high amounts of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to cope, which has a knock-on effect impacting how the rest of your body functions. In terms of your mental health, the sustained cortisol levels can create an imbalance of certain key neurotransmitters that impact mood, says Cunningham, which can then impact your mood, sleep, and even memory.

When it comes to impaired memory and depression, “an imbalance of neurotransmitters dopamine and adrenaline are part of the problem here," says Teralyn Sell, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist. "Dopamine and adrenaline are in charge of your concentration, focus, and overall drive; if you have a dopamine imbalance, memory could be something that you struggle with."

Depression also damages brain cells, says Dorothy Reddy, MD, owner of Neurogenex. This damage can lead to the actual shrinking of the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for your emotions and processing memories—which impairs its function. A 2013 study found that people with depression struggled to identify objects on a screen that they had seen before or similar to those they'd seen before. This might not sound like a big deal, but it means that their brains couldn't properly recognize patterns—a key mechanism for storing memories.

Thuston says the memory issues she faced were incredibly isolating—which made her depression even harder to cope with. "You start to lose your sense of self and the depression is already making you feel weird and out of sorts, but when you can't remember certain conversations or events, you really start to question your identity,” she says.

What can be done to protect cognition

Thankfully, the impact on cognition from depression can be temporary (and is typically believed to affect just short-term memory capabilities), although repeated episodes of depression can lead to more long-lasting cognitive health issues, says Dr. Reddy.

In addition to seeking therapy and other appropriate treatments from a trusted mental health practitioner, there are some things people who are experiencing depression can do to help protect their cognitive health, Cunningham says. “Adding more foods with omega-3 fatty acids can help boost your serotonin levels, and remember to eat well-balanced meals and to drink plenty of water,” she says. This might sound basic, but these brain-healthy habits can help naturally produce more of those all-important neurotransmitters that the brain needs to function properly.

“What you should know is that fatigue is a warning sign to make changes," adds Dr. Sell. “It is important to give yourself permission to rest when needed and start to look at your bedtime habits and how you fuel your body with nutrient dense foods during the day."

Although it can difficult to do when in a depressive state, exercising is another great mood-enhancing activity for the brain. “If you can muster up the energy for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, it can make quite a difference," says Cunningham.

Thurston has personally found journaling and meditation to be incredibly beneficial to both her depression symptoms and her memory. “There are about 5000 reasons why I journal every day but it can also really help our memory banks," she says. "I also do weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly reviews of my phone photos, my trips, the highs and lows of those time periods, etc. [and] that has definitely helped as well." As for meditation, she says that it helps provide clarity. "When I'm clear-headed, I remember my days and conversations so much better,” she adds. (Research also suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve short-term memory and that people who meditate have a bigger hippocampus.)

None of these lifestyle changes on their own will magically solve a person's depression, but taken in tandem with other efforts—like talk or light therapy—these things can really help people manage all of their depression symptoms, says Cunningham. “For some people, medication is necessary to restore healthy brain chemistry, and there is no shame about that! It is essential that we look at all of these solutions—diet, exercise, therapy, medication—simply as tools in the tool box."

For her part, Thurston says her holistic approach has really helped her better manage her depression symptoms—including her memory issues. “I've always just thought I had a bad memory. But I'm three years past the worst of it, and my memory is so much better! My whole life is better, but definitely my memory too,” she says.

The 'depression traffic lights' method can help you better identify a loved one in need of help. And here's what to know about EMDR, the therapeutic treatment used for helping people with trauma.

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