Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/2/2022
Depression is a common mental illness that affects millions of American adults every year. An estimated 19.4 million adults, or 7.8 percent of all adults in the United States, experienced in 2019 one or more major depressive episodes.
While depression is usually associated with negative effects on a person’s moods and feelings, it can also have a significant impact on cognition and memory.
When you’re depressed, you might find it more difficult to focus on tasks and remember certain information. Things that are normally simple, like remembering details in the short term, might become harder than they normally are for you.
Below, we’ve explained how depression can affect you, including the effects that it can have on your memory.
We’ve also looked at the latest research to discuss why there’s a link between depression and problems with memory performance.
Finally, we’ve talked about what you can do if you’re experiencing memory loss and think that it could be caused by a mental disorder such as depression.
Depression is common, and when it develops, it can have a serious impact on the way you feel, think and behave.
The most common form of depression in adults is major depressive disorder (MDD). It can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Certain factors, such as your genes, personality and health can all contribute to your risk of developing depression.
Common symptoms of major depressive disorder include:
Persistent feelings of sadness, emptiness or anxiety
A pessimistic daily life outlook and belief that things are hopeless
Less energy and a general feeling of fatigue
Reduced interest in your normal hobbies and activities
Irritability and a shorter-than-normal temper
Changes in your appetite and/or weight
Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up at a normal time
A feeling of restlessness and difficulty keeping yourself still
Cramps, headaches, aches and other pains without a clear cause
Digestive problems that don’t improve with treatment
Suicidal thoughts or attempts at suicide
Major depressive disorder can also affect your executive function — vital mental processes such as paying attention to certain tasks, comprehending information, making decisions and forming memories.
Research shows that many people with depression report experiencing one or several of these cognitive symptoms. Common complaints include a reduced mental “processing speed” and a greater level of difficulty with skills such as working memory and problem-solving.
Put simply, if you’re experiencing other symptoms of depression, such as a poor mood or a lower level of interest in your usual hobbies, it’s common to also feel as if your memory isn’t quite as effective as normal.
So, why does this happen, and what type of memory is affected by depression? Over the years, research has identified a clear link between depressive disorders and different types of cognitive impairments, including several that involve forming and recalling memories.
When you’re depressed, the following types of memory may be affected:
Working memory. Working memory is the type of memory that’s involved in short-term planning, comprehension, reasoning and problem-solving. It consists of the information that you can retain for use for conscious, real-time mental tasks.In a study published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychiatry in 2005, researchers found that people with depression showed impairments in working memory, such as the ability to remember visual and spatial information in the short term.
Long-term memory. Long-term memory is your memory of activities that you’ve learned during your life from practice and exposure, as well as factual information, concepts and experiences.A review of research published in The Lancet in 2019 noted that depression can affect a person’s long-term memory even when other symptoms go into remission.
Autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory is your memory of your own life experiences. It consists of details of events and experiences, as well as semantic facts such as names and other details.Research has found that people with major depression and other mood disorders often have poor memory of their past. They may focus on negative memories, or view past memories with a pervasively negative tone.
Experts aren’t yet totally aware of why depression causes these changes in memory. However, some research suggests that changes in the physical structure of the brain that occur in people with depression may play a role.
For example, one meta-analysis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry in 2016 found that people with major depressive disorder had, on average, smaller hippocampal volumes than their non-depressed peers.
Along with the neocortex and the amygdala, the hippocampus is one of several brain regions responsible for controlling and managing memory.
Interestingly, some participants in the study — such as those aged 21 or below when they first became affected by depression symptoms — also displayed a smaller amygdala.
While brain structure might play a part in depression’s effects on memory, we don’t yet know if it’s the only possible factor. Research is ongoing and we may soon learn more about how and why depression often affects memory in addition to mood.
Not everyone with depression experiences memory loss. However, when memory issues do develop as a result of depression, they can cause numerous problems that harm your moods, feelings and thoughts, creating a negative effect on your quality of life.
If you have major depressive disorder or another condition that causes depressive symptoms, you may experience one or several of the following memory-related problems:
Short-term memory loss. Since depression can affect your working memory, you may find it harder to remember information in real-time. Things like spatial information and numbers might seem to slip your mind in certain situations.
Overly negative memories. When you recall past events, you might do so with a focus on their negative aspects. You might begin to generalize that certain events or moments were negative, even if this isn’t accurate.
Difficulty focusing. Because of the effects of depression on your memory, you might find it difficult to focus on specific tasks. Research shows that depression often has a negative effect on workplace performance.
Impaired decision making. Because of its effects on memory and focus, depression can affect your ability to make decisions. You might find it difficult to objectively think about the options available to you or decide what to do in certain situations.
Not all memory loss is caused by depression, meaning you generally shouldn’t assume that you could be depressed just because you notice yourself experiencing difficulty retaining information or find that you forget things more often than normal.
Other potential causes of memory loss include:
Aging. It’s normal to experience some degree of forgetfulness as you get older. You may notice that it takes you longer to learn new things, or that you sometimes misplace things in your home.
Medications. Some medications can cause iatrogenic amnesia, or memory loss caused by medical treatment. Medications associated with memory loss include antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, painkillers, anticonvulsants and other drugs.
Head injuries. It’s common to experience some degree of memory loss following a head injury, such as a concussion. Make sure to seek immediate medical help if you hit your head during a fall or any type of accident.
Nutritional deficiencies. Certain nutritional deficiencies may affect your brain function, including your memory. For example, eating a diet low in vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12 could contribute to memory loss.
Dementia. Memory problems are a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Most people affected by Alzheimer’s disease begin to display symptoms in their mid-60s.
Kidney, liver and thyroid disorders. Some conditions that affect your kidneys, liver or thyroid may affect your memory. For example, hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) is commonly associated with increased forgetfulness and “brain fog.”
Alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol, especially in large amounts, can have an effect on your memory. Excessive alcohol consumption is also associated with other cognitive deficits, such as slowed processing of information and difficulty learning new things.
Recreational drug use. Many recreational drugs can cause memory issues. Continued use of certain drugs is also associated with other cognitive function problems, including difficulties in learning and recalling information.
Other mental health issues. Memory loss can also occur with other mental disorders or emotional problems, including anxiety disorders or chronic stress. These symptoms are often easy to mistake for depression-related loss of concentration or memory issues.
It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider if you think that an issue other than depression might be causing or contributing to memory loss.
If you’ve noticed memory loss in addition to other depression symptoms, it could be a sign that you have clinical depression or another type of depressive disorder.
If so, it’s best to seek help from a mental health professional. You can do this by talking to your primary care provider and asking for a mental health referral, by making an appointment with a mental health provider locally or from home using our online psychiatry service.
Depression is treatable, and symptoms such as memory loss and difficulty focusing on specific tasks often improve with ongoing treatment.
As part of treatment for depression, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications called antidepressants, suggest that you take part in psychotherapy or recommend changes that you can make to your habits and lifestyle.
Our guide to depression treatment provides more information about how these approaches can help to relieve your symptoms and help you work towards recovering from depression.
Depression is a common mental illness that can have a serious impact on your mind, including your memory and cognitive performance.
Our mental health services are designed to provide you with convenient, confidential access to help for depression, anxiety and other issues that can prevent you from feeling and performing your best.
Interested in learning more about depression? Our full guide to depression discusses the most common types of depression, the symptoms you might experience if you’re depressed, factors that can cause depression and your options for seeking treatment.
You can also learn actionable strategies for dealing with depression and other common mental health issues with our free online mental health resources.