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Depression and Memory Loss

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How Are Depression And Memory Loss Connected?

Depression and Memory LossDepression's primary symptoms include loss of concentration, the inability to form short-term memories and overall memory loss. While doctors and researchers have long understood that there was a link between poor memory and depression, technological advances in Brain Imaging have recently led scientists to a better understanding of exactly how depression and memory loss are linked. 

The brain's frontal lobe controls focus, critical thinking, organization and memory. While studying the brains of depressed patients, doctors noted reduced activity within the frontal lobe. This appears to be due to a lack of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These brain chemicals allow cells to connect and share information. Low levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and Norepinephrine lead to decreased frontal-lobe activity and impaired cognitive function. 

When we're depressed, we are less attentive to outside stimulus and this lack of attention keeps information from imprinting on the brain. When the brain fails to capture and create short-term memories, it necessarily affects long-term memory as well. What has not been saved in the short-term clearly cannot be stored for the long-term. Addressing short-term memory loss and depression ultimately improves long-term memory as well. Also of note is the selective memory-loss that can occur alongside depression, in which the mood's affect on memory allows negative memories to take precedence over positive ones, or a shift in perception so that positive memories are skewed to take on a negative tone.

How To Improve Your Memory When You Have Depression?

Battling both memory loss and depression at the same time can seem overwhelming, but in many instances, treating one can improve the other. The first and foremost method of improving memory in those suffering from depression is to treat the depression itself. Most doctors prescribe a multifaceted treatment, with recommended behavioral changes as well as medication and often therapy. Each piece is intended to bring some measure of relief from symptoms and together, can greatly reduce the length and depth of depressive episodes. 

Some of the basic treatments for depression are also recommended specifically for people suffering memory loss or those who wish to prevent memory loss and improve both short and long-term retention. The following methods have been studied extensively and research shows them to be effective in treating both depression and memory loss.

Exercise - We've long known how important exercise is for the body. What's not so widely known is how exercises changes our brain chemistry, enhancing mood and increase cognitive function. Along with endorphin release, recent studies show that exercise actually creates new neurons within the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Simply put, exercise stimulates the brain as well as the body, increasing the concentration of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. Since these neurotransmitters are responsible for much of our energy and sense of well-being, any activity that encourages their growth can lessen depression. The link between memory and exercise is equally strong. According to recent studies, vigorous aerobic exercise (one which raises the heart-rate) performed 5 times a week for 30 minutes or three times a week for 60 minutes has been proven to reduce memory problems and depression.

Sleep - Good sleeping habits can affect both depression and short-term memory loss. Depression frequently wreaks havoc the sleep cycle either by leading to insomnia or hypersomnia. Of these two, Insomnia has the greatest effect on memory. During REM (deep) sleep, the part of the brain involved in learning is quite busy. Sleep is critical to the consolidation of memories, transforming new memories into long-term ones while we snooze. Without crucial REM sleep, our brains are unable to sort and file necessary information. Contextual memory and complex cognitive tasks are also negatively affected by reduced sleep. Especially affected are procedural memories, those things we learn which require a series of steps.

Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can be difficult when battling depression but the National Sleep Center has some suggestions to restoring a proper sleep cycle:

  • Create a bedtime routine and stick to it 
  • Make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep (dark, quiet and comfortable) 
  • Avoid caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol close to bedtime 
  • Incorporate some form of exercise into your daily routine.

Antidepressants and Memory LossAntidepressants - Antidepressants are frequently prescribed to treat long-term depression and memory loss. They take 2 to 6 weeks to reach their full effect. The majority of antidepressants are grouped into two families; MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors), and SSRIs (serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors). MAOIs work by blocking the enzyme monoamine oxidase which breaks down neurotransmitters. They are less commonly used than SSRIs, which appear to prevent reuptake of serotonin and allow for higher levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain's synapses. 

There are newer medications being used to treat depression which fall into neither category but it is worth noting that doctors and researchers are currently unclear on how exactly they work. Most antidepressants share a long list of possible side effects, including insomnia, and an inability to concentrate which can lead to short-term memory loss. The majority of patients surveyed about the severity of side effects report them as tolerable in light of the net gains in mood, energy and daily function. If you DO suffer significant memory loss after beginning a new medication you should let your doctor know immediately.

The bottom line is that depression and memory loss need not rule your life.  Addressing them head-on with proper medical care and lifestyle changes can vastly improve your quality of life.


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