Memory Loss: Can Depression and Stress Be Culprits?

Memory Loss: Can Depression and Stress Be Culprits?

Memory is how your brain stores, retrieves, and makes sense of information. Your memory is crucial because it shapes your identity. It guides you through your daily life.

Various factors can affect how your memory functions. You can experience memory loss ranging from mild forgetfulness to severe cognitive impairment. But the elephant in the room is figuring out what causes memory loss. 

In this article, we will explore some causes of memory loss. We will help you understand how medication, sleep, and nutrition affect your memory. We will also explore the connection between depression, stress, and memory loss.

What is Memory Loss?

Memory loss is the inability to recall information or experiences previously stored in one’s memory.1 

To diagnose memory loss, your doctor will ask how your memory changes affect your life. 

There are different types of memory loss. They are based on the causes of memory loss and how people forget things1:

The nature of forgetfulness

  • Normal Age-Related Forgetfulness: As you age, you can experience mild forgetfulness. This includes things like misplacing your keys or forgetting names. This stage usually doesn’t significantly interfere with your daily life.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI): This includes more noticeable memory problems. But you can still perform daily tasks independently.
  • Dementia: This is a broader term that includes various cognitive impairments, along with memory loss. It’s severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common causes of dementia.
  • Amnestic Disorders: These disorders target memory functions. They can result from brain injury, stroke, or certain medical conditions.

What Causes Memory Loss?

Various factors can trigger memory loss, ranging from natural aging to traumatic injuries and medical conditions. 

Common causes of memory loss include the following2: 

  • Age-associated memory impairment is a common cause of memory changes. Your brain’s structure and function naturally change as you age, affecting memory abilities. These changes can be subtle. They include a slower processing speed and occasional forgetfulness. 
Old man with memory impairment

  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI),  caused by a significant injury to the head, can cause memory problems. Memory loss ranges from temporary disruptions to more permanent cognitive impairments. The type of memory loss you get depends on the level of brain damage.
Image depicting TBI

  • Neurodegenerative diseases are associated with memory loss and cognitive decline. Examples are Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s.
Alzheimer's disease in brain

  • Strokes occur when something blocks blood flow to a part of the brain. It often leads to damage in that region.
sign of stroke in brain

  • Sleep disorders  such as insomnia or sleep apnea. They can prevent you from forming or retaining memories.
Women with sleep disorder

How is Memory Loss Diagnosed?

To diagnose memory loss, your doctor will look at your overall health. Your doctor will use a combination of measurement tools3 to assess and diagnose you. They include the following:

  • You and your family or caregivers will complete an in-depth clinical interview. This will help to gather information about when your memory problems started. This information helps build a timeline of cognitive changes.
  • You will provide your medical history. This includes medical conditions, medications, and past injuries or illnesses. This helps rule out or identify potential underlying medical causes of memory loss.
  • Your doctor will likely give you several standardized cognitive tests. These measure your mental performance. They also assess the extent of your memory loss. Common cognitive tests include the following:
    • The Mini-Mental State Examination evaluates various cognitive functions: memory, orientation, attention, and language.
    • The Montreal Cognitive Assessment assesses cognitive domains: attention, memory, language, and visual abilities.
    • The Clock Drawing Test assesses executive functions and memory by asking the individual to draw a clock face with a specific time.
  • Another step in your evaluation involves neuroimaging or brain imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can reveal structural brain changes. These scans help identify abnormalities that could contribute to memory loss.
  • Your doctor may order a blood test to help identify medical conditions that could cause or aggravate your memory problems. Tests can show whether you have the following:
    • thyroid imbalances
    • vitamin deficiencies
    • markers of inflammation that can affect your brain’s function
  • Additionally, your doctor may ask you to take a neuropsychological assessment. This checks your memory, attention, language, and problem-solving. Checking for these will help your doctor understand your cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

The Impact of Mental Health: Can Depression and Stress Cause Memory Loss?

Let’s first discuss whether depression can cause memory loss. 

Depression is a mental disorder linked to a decline in thinking and memory abilities.4

People with depression may also experience:

  • persistent sadness
  • loss of interest
  • emotional and physical symptoms

The relationship between depression and memory loss goes two ways. Depression can make it harder to remember things. Having trouble with memory can make your depression worse. 

Forgetting important events can make you feel frustrated and hopeless, like with depression.

Depression can affect various aspects of your memory. This causes problems in different memory processes5:

The relationship between depression and memory loss goes two ways. Depression can contribute to your memory problems, and memory difficulties can worsen your depressive symptoms. 

Forgetting important events can make you feel frustrated and hopeless, like with depression.

Depression can affect various aspects of your memory. This causes problems in different memory processes5:

  • Episodic memory involves remembering specific events and experiences. Depression can lead to “memory distortions,” where you remember past events as more harmful than they were in reality.
  • Working memory helps your brain hold and manipulate information temporarily. Depression can impair working memory. It can make it harder to focus and manage multiple tasks.
  • Prospective Memory involves remembering to perform tasks in the future. Depression can affect your prospective memory, leading to forgetfulness.

Now, what about stress? Does it affect memory? 

The short answer is yes! Stress and memory loss go hand in hand. Have you ever felt stressed from running late and forgot where you put your keys? Stress is a natural response to challenges in your daily life. It can affect your cognitive function. 

Scientific research has shown the link between chronic stress and memory issues. It has shed light on how stress can influence memory function.6

Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These “stress hormones” prepare your body to respond when it feels threatened. If this happens constantly, it can cause chronic stress. Chronic stress can affect different memory processes, including working, episodic, and long-term memory. 

How Other Mental Health Conditions Affect Memory

The connection between mental health and memory loss is significant. Besides depression and stress, there are other mental health conditions that can impact memory and thinking.

  • Anxiety and memory loss are often intertwined.7 Anxiety can make you hyper-focused on details and overlook non-threatening information. Additionally, excessive worry can take up your working memory. It makes it challenging to focus on everyday tasks and remember information.
Women with memory loss and anxiety

  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can affect memory, causing problems with attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity. People with ADHD often struggle with working memory. ADHD affects their ability to organize tasks and remember details.8
Full form of ADHD

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can profoundly affect memory.9 It happens when you go through traumatic events. People with PTSD may experience intrusive memories or flashbacks of traumatic events. This leads to difficulty focusing on tasks.
Full form of PTSD

Are Depression and Stress Likely to Contribute to the Development of Memory Loss?

Scientific research has explored how memory loss happens. The consensus is that depression and stress can contribute to memory loss over time. 

According to a 2018 Harvard study, people with depression had poor memory for positive events. They also had overall impaired recollection.10 This means that depression can stop you from storing positive experiences. You may even recall negative events more readily than positive ones.

Chronic stress has the potential to contribute to memory loss development. When you feel stressed, your body naturally produces more cortisol to help you cope. A study in 2021 found that high cortisol levels can harm your memory functions.11

Management and Treatment Options for Memory Loss

When depression or stress makes memory loss worse, medical treatments for memory loss may become essential. Your doctor can manage your memory loss with various medical interventions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

  • When anxiety and stress contribute to memory problems, your doctor may prescribe anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications. These medicines can help you decrease excessive worry and anxiety, potentially easing the mental impact of chronic stress.12
  • Medications known as cognitive enhancers can improve memory and cognitive function.13 An example is donepezil, used in Alzheimer’s disease treatment.

How to Manage Memory Loss

You can manage memory loss by adopting strategies and lifestyle changes that support your cognitive health. 

Here are some practical tips for managing memory loss15:

Manage memory loss

  • Use calendars, planners, or digital apps to keep track of appointments, tasks, and important dates. 
  • Establish a regular daily routine with consistent sleep, meal times, and exercise. Routines help reduce cognitive load and make it easier to remember tasks and activities.
  • Regular physical exercise can improve blood flow to the brain and support cognitive function. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week.
  • Consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds are linked to improved cognitive health.
  • Make sure you get 7-9 hours of good sleep each night. This helps your memory and thinking.
  • Practice stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or mindfulness. Engage in hobbies or activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
  • To keep your mind active, stay connected with friends, family, and social groups.  
  • Engage in activities that challenge your brain, such as puzzles, games, reading, learning a new skill, or hobbies. 
  • Drink enough water throughout the day, as dehydration can impact cognitive function.

Mental Health Treatment for Memory Loss

Here are some interventions that may indirectly improve memory16:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help lower depression and boost mental health, which can also improve memory.
CBT blocks

  • Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction can help you focus on being present in the moment. You may experience reduced stress and anxiety, which can contribute to memory problems. 
Women with mental peace

  • Exercise Programs: Exercise benefits your physical health and positively affects your mental well-being.  Regular physical activity can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. This can lead to improved mood and memory function. 
A man is excecising with his trainer

  • Pharmacological Treatments: Taking medications for treating depression and other mental health conditions can be helpful. As depressive or anxiety symptoms alleviate, memory function may improve as well.
Person showing pharmaceutical products

  • Stress Reduction Techniques:  Stress management interventions, such as relaxation training, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation, can help reduce stress and anxiety, fostering healthier memory function.
Women performing Yoga on beach


Memory loss is not easy to cope with, but there are tools and resources to help you with your experience. With depression and memory loss, it’s clear that addressing mood and memory can improve overall mental and emotional well-being. Additionally, reducing stress can positively impact memory health.

If you’re struggling with memory concerns, there are treatment approaches you can take to feel better in control of your cognitive abilities, such as mental health therapy, medication therapy, and stress reduction techniques. 

There are ways you can manage your memory health on your own, too. Taking care of your sleep, eating nutritious food, and exercising can significantly improve your mental well-being. Adopting healthy behaviors can feel empowering as you take ownership of your memory care. 

If you feel like depression or stress is affecting your memory, consulting with a medical professional may be helpful. If you’re already dealing with mental health problems, talk to your therapist about your memory worries.



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Written By
Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Rychel Johnson, M.S., LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor in Kansas. She owns a private practice, Empower Mental Wellness, specializing in anxiety treatment and social skills development. Rychel also enjoys extensive road trips and spending time with her husband, toddler, and two cats.

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