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March 29th, 2011
06:51 PM ET

Could my memory loss really be depression?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Asked by RN, Central Washington

I am having significant memory problems that my M.D. thinks are due to depression, but I wonder if such severe problems can be accounted for by depression. I have had dysthymia my whole life. I admit I have a lot of stress in my life and may even be more depressed than I have been in the past, but I have never had these problems before. Here are some examples of things I forget on a daily basis (multiple times a day, actually) : not knowing why I'm in the car driving, not able to remember longtime friends' names, my dog's name, can't remember the names of common objects, putting keys, laundry, etc. in the refrigerator. This is affecting my professional and personal life. Could this really be just depression?

Expert answer

Dear RN,

I wish I knew how old you are, because this is by far the most important factor in determining how likely it is that depression is causing your cognitive symptoms, as opposed to some other process like dementia. Assuming you are not abusing drugs or alcohol and have not developed some very, very rare disorder, there aren't many likely causes for your symptoms.

If you are under the age of 60, your M.D. is likely correct. If you are over the age of 60 (and there is nothing magic about this exact age), the risk for dementia, which could also be causing your problems, increases dramatically. By the way, this pattern holds for all mental complaints. If a person begins having hallucinations at age 20 it is almost always a psychiatric problem. If a person has hallucinations for the first time at 80 it is almost always medical or neurological problem.

Whatever your age, if it were me I would get neuropsychological testing. This testing is an involved and expensive process not covered by all insurance policies, but it is pretty good at identifying a dementing from a depressive process. Again, the older you are the more such testing is likely to be revealing and therefore important to do. Also, if you are older, neuroimaging can sometimes be useful in identifying obvious physical causes for these symptoms, such as small strokes in the brain.

Let me assure you that major depression can most definitely be associated with severe problems with memory, paying attention and other cognitive abilities. In fact, in older people, these deficits can be so severe that they can actually pose a diagnostic challenge in terms of differentiating them from dementia. Certainly of the symptoms you list, only putting the laundry in the refrigerator would be a little unusual for major depression.

If your symptoms are being caused by depression, you should know that the presence of these symptoms in the disorder is no accident. Probably the most replicated neurological finding in depression is that a part of the brain called the hippocampus shrinks. This area is crucial for all the memory abilities you describe. Although some data suggest that the hippocampus can recover with treatment, clinical experience suggests that cognitive complaints can persist and resolve only slowly.


soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. davidadams281

    Memory loss and depression is something I haven't really ever thought of. Very interesting take on the subject and making the correlation between the two.

    I hope others find this article as useful as I have.

    Cheers,
    David
    Great perspective on something that can be quite taboo to talk about.
    Depression can really be debilitating and it’s great to hear other stories about the experiences they went through. Sometimes just hearing from someone else that shares, or can empathize, with your pain can mean the world.
    I hope others find your site as useful as I have.
    Cheers,
    David

    http://www.allthingsdepression.com

    March 29, 2011 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Mrs. G

    I wish that I had seen this article months ago... I'm 27 and was diagnosed with depression last fall, but had spent months thinking that I was losing my mind because I couldn't remember things or concentrate on anything. I was really surprised when my doctor told me that my symptoms were probably due to depression. I've been on an antidepressant since mid-November and my memory and concentration are back.

    March 29, 2011 at 20:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Misti

    If only antidepressants didn't have so many side effects! Some people don't have bad effects though. They're worth trying.

    March 30, 2011 at 05:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Elle

      When you find the one that works for you it's great. when I was on Paxil I was tired all the time. Now that I'm on Zoloft I feel like a different person, I can think clearly, not every little thing bothers me, I feel like have a new life

      March 30, 2011 at 10:31 | Report abuse |
  4. andrewbell

    In fact, under new health care reform your health insurance company will no longer be allowed to cancel your policy if you get sick, we should be doing this already! search online "Wise Medical Insurance" it is a good place to find insurance if you have illness like me.

    March 30, 2011 at 07:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. MC

    This is adrenal fatigue. Doctors won't diagnose it so people never know what the root of the problem is. Do some research on adrenal fatigue and you'll be surprised at the symptoms. Its very treatable but you need to make serious lifestyle changes.

    March 30, 2011 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. SkekLach

    Woooww..... I'm on board with Mrs. G here. I was diagnosed with depression about 6 years ago or so and my memory has been atrocious since then. I could never understand why either. I don't believe the doctor's even so much as mentioned that it could effect my memory. It drove me crazy though. I couldn't understand how I went from having perfect memory when I was a kid to going to flick my ashes in the ashtray and finding that I have another one that's already lit sitting there in the ashtray.

    March 30, 2011 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. been there

    I can relate to many of the symptoms described. It was very unnerving to be driving somewhere and completely forget what I was doing. The worst part was when people would tell me that I had already asked the same question of them before and I had NO recollection of doing so or of the answer. An SSRI antidepressant completely restored my memory to better than ever before! I think I read in a science magazine that SSRIs help new neurons stick around longer so your brain actually functions better.

    March 30, 2011 at 10:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Rider3

    That's exactly what happened to me. Before I had a nervous breakdown in November 09, it started in that I couldn't remember simple things: the correspondence I did the day before, what I wore the day before, where I filed something... simple things I should have remembered. Now, after a year of major treatment, therapy, and such, I'm amazed that my memory is somewhat back. When I remember simple things, I know I've turned a corner and am getting well again. But, boy, those lost months were tough, though. Depression can definitely hinder memory.

    March 30, 2011 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Elizabeth

    My father had the same symptoms and his doctor was quick to diagnose him with pre-stages of Alzheimer's because he was 80 years old. My family had an issue with this diagnoses because it happened so quickly, not a gradual loss of memory. He experienced similar symptoms, one example of that being he would sit in front of the keyboard at the computer and not remember how to type.

    My sister researched his symptoms and found that some matched a vitamin b-12 deficiency. Here are some related symptoms found on a web search "Vitamin B-12 Deficiency Symptoms.
    Some people with vitamin B12 deficiency will experience symptoms in their nervous system first, such as:

    altered or reduced sense of touch
    less sensitivity to vibration (inability to feel the vibrations of a tuning fork)
    colour blindness
    tingling in the hands and feet
    muscle weakness
    difficulties with walking and coordination
    psychological symptoms, such as memory loss, confusion and depression.

    I hope you find your answer!

    March 30, 2011 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Siege

    People don't realize that one can be diagnosed with depression without the symptom of sadness. When this forgetfulness thing happened to me some years ago, I thought I had a brain tumor. I would end up washing my hair at least twice while showering because I couldn't remember if I had already shampooed. I had to put sticky notes on the steering wheel when I drove anywhere because I would forget where I was supposed to be at. I would walk into a room to do something and completely forget what I wanted to do, something we all do on occasion but this happened to me at least 5 times an hour.

    Taking an antidepressant dramatically changed things for the better. But I still have to deal with the question of "You're depressed? What do you have to be depressed about?" on a regular basis. Um, no, I'm not SAD. I have clinical depression.

    March 30, 2011 at 16:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. The_Mick

    I'm 60 and just started reading/studying what Contemporary Psychology calls "Very probably the best [memory] book on the market...The authors writes as one who has used and taught these techniques for years." It's Kenneth Higbee's "Your Memory: How it works and how to improve it." The Oxford Review says, "There are a plethora of books and courses devoted to memory improvement, some of them marginally useful but most as simply a waste of time. This is unquestionably the best book on memory I have ever read." I hope it works for me! I saw the recent hype over the book "Moonwalking With Einstein" by the winner of the recent USA Memory Championship, but it tells you it's "not a self-help" book, so I did more research and settled on this one. "The Memory Book" by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas is also praised but I liked the reviews that preferred Higbee's book because it tells you HOW memory works in addition to technique to improve it and is written by psychologist who studies memory.

    I turned 60 last October and, over the last few years have noticed my memory is not what it was. This is occurring just as I'm trying to become a better piano sheet music reader, where I have to recognize patterns (chords, etc.) instead of individual notes to play fast enough.

    March 30, 2011 at 17:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. PMD

    Good article. As a neurologist, I not infrequently get young (under 50) patients coming in for "memory problems." Except in extremely rare cases, these turn out to be due to one of a very few things: psychiatric problems; drugs, alcohol, or medication side effects; sleep disorders such as sleep apnea; or simply too much stress and distraction. The first and last of these are probably the most common.

    March 30, 2011 at 17:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. NBE

    I was diagnosed with clinical depression 40 years ago. I had a terrific memory then, and retained it for probably 30 of the ensuing years. But in my 50s, I started noticing that my memory was letting me down, and now that I am 65, I am aware that my memory loss is significant. I chalk it up to age and lifestyle factors, as brain scan was normal.

    So I had simultaneous depression and an excellent memory over the course of many years. I do not doubt that depression can cause memory problems in some people, but it doesn't happen this way with everyone. My guess is that it is a matter of individual chemistry, the unique personal equation that is each human being.

    I do wonder if psychotropic drugs over decades might do some damage to the memory, although I know many women in my own age group who have never used such drugs but who talk about forgetting things and "senior moments" as much as I do.

    March 30, 2011 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. MA

    Can some one help me?I dont know whether i am having memory loss or not really confused.I am really worried about it. Most of the times I used to forget about things names frnds names etc..I am only at my early 20s.Earlier about 3-4 years back i can study very well i used to bi hart things very well and very fast..but now i am not able to study any thing ..all my effort went into vain ..Now i am really worried about this problem..please help me...

    July 2, 2013 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply

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