Can Depression and Anxiety Cause Memory Loss (Short-Term and Long-Term)?

Risk of Memory Loss

It comes as no surprise that depression and anxiety make you feel sad, bad, and stressed. But many people are unaware that these mental health issues are also associated with forgetfulness, poor concentration, trouble making decisions, and confusion. It all adds up to memory problems, and that’s bad news. How do anxiety and depression interfere with memory? Before diving into the details, let’s take a look at how memories are made and the different types of memories.


The biology of memory is complex, but it basically involves 3 main steps: encoding, storage, and recall.

Step 1: Encoding

Encoding occurs when the brain attaches meaning to input from our 5 senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Research shows that we recall things more easily and have better retention when we associate a purpose to them.

Step 2: Storage

Research on the brain suggests that memories are stashed away in small chunks throughout different regions of the brain rather than being stored in a complete whole in one place. The hippocampus, located within the temporal lobes, plays a vital role in processing memories for long-term storage elsewhere in the brain.

Step 3: Recall

In this step, your brain retrieves a memory. To recall a memory, your brain pulls together those small chunks that have been stored all over the brain and reassembles it. Rather than an exact “replay” of the experience, it’s more like a creative reconstruction. During memory retrieval, your brain also activates nerve pathways that were created when the memory was initially formed.


On a daily basis, we rely on a variety of types of memory. Here are brief descriptions of the different types of memory, how long they last, and the brain regions involved.

  • Sensory memory: This lasts less than 1 second and is usually lost since it is not encoded. It is associated with the visual-sensory cortex in the parietal/occipital lobes of the brain.
  • Short-term memory: This lasts less than 60 seconds, such as remembering a phone number, and involves the prefrontal cortex.
  • Working memory: This lasts seconds to hours, such as cramming for an exam and is associated with the prefrontal cortex.
  • Long-term memory: This lasts hours to months and involves the hippocampus. Long-term memories pass through the hippocampus then are stored in various regions throughout the brain. For example, visual cues are stored in the occipital lobes, sensory cues are stored in the parietal lobes, sounds are stored in the temporal lobes, and so on.
  • Long-lasting memory: These memories last months to a lifetime and are processed in the hippocampus before being stored all over the brain.


People with depression often struggle with short-term memory loss, but they are also at risk of long-term memory problems. A wealth of research, including a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, has shown that untreated depression significantly increases the risk of dementia. Depressive disorder doubles the risk of developing cognitive impairment in women and quadruples it in men.

In a fascinating study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, a team of researchers evaluated mood and memory in 5,781 women ages 65 and older. At the study’s outset, 3.6% of the women had 6 or more symptoms of depression. Of these depressed women, however, nearly 93% of them were untreated. At a follow-up 4 years later, the more depressive symptoms had increased, the worse the women performed on cognitive tests. Women with 3-5 symptoms of depression had a 60% higher chance of cognitive impairment, while those with 6 or more depressive symptoms were 230% more likely to have cognitive decline. According to other researchers, having depression later in life may be a possible precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

In a fascinating study, women with 3-5 symptoms of depression had a 60% higher chance of cognitive impairment, while those with 6 or more depressive symptoms were 230% more likely to have cognitive decline. Click To Tweet

Depression’s effect on memory can also impact younger people. A 2013 study on young adults found that those with higher levels of depression scored worse on a cognitive test called pattern separation, which is a mechanism involved in encoding memories. This may be one of the ways major depressive disorder interferes with the memory-making process.

In order to preserve your memory, it is imperative that you seek treatment for depression. Be aware, however, that some treatments for depression have been associated with memory loss. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a type of antidepressant that has been linked to cognitive decline, according to a 2016 study in Psychiatry Journal. There are many alternatives to antidepressants that can be effective in the treatment of depression.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is another depression treatment associated with memory problems. ECT involves pulsing electric currents into the brain to trigger small, controlled seizures. Research in JAMA Psychiatry shows that ECT has been associated with retrograde amnesia, which means patients experience gaps in memory related to the time close to the procedure. In some people, memory gaps can extend weeks, months, or even years prior to the ECT procedure. In addition, ECT is typically performed under general anesthesia, which has also been linked to memory problems.


Similarly, anxiety and chronic stress have been associated with memory problems, according to research in Neurology and BMJ Open. Brain circuits involved in chronic anxiety and fear overlap those seen in Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, chronic stress shrinks volume in the hippocampus. One study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that “anxiety is inter-related and inseparable with loss of memory.” The researchers suggested that anxiety is an early predictor of cognitive decline. What’s behind this strong link?

In general, anxiety requires a lot of mental horsepower and steals mental energy from the memory formation process. Spending so much time stressing about things means you may not have the brainpower to effectively process incoming information for storage as memories. For example, a 2008 study found that short-term, acute stress interferes with cell communication in the brain’s memory centers.

Because of this, it is critical that you learn to control anxiety and stress. Take note that brain SPECT imaging studies show that some anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, are actually harmful to the brain. In fact, a 2019 review in the Journal of Clinical Neurology found that long-term use of these prescription drugs increases the risk of dementia by more than 50%. For better brain health, look for natural alternatives to anti-anxiety pills to calm anxiety and stress.

To understand if your memory problems are related to depression, anxiety, or stress, or if they are an indication of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, consider brain imaging. SPECT is a functional brain imaging technology that can differentiate underlying brain patterns associated with these conditions. SPECT has recently been unanimously endorsed by the Canadian Association of Nuclear Medicine for the evaluation of neuropsychiatric conditions, such as depression, suspected dementia, and other issues.

Memory problems, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Great u have this ❤️😍

    Comment by Debbie — September 9, 2021 @ 1:15 PM

  2. Nice information of brain memory analysis

    Comment by Dalipkumar Hasija — September 10, 2021 @ 3:44 AM

  3. Interesting, helpful in identifying memory loss causes as related to depression as opposed to underlying pathology

    Comment by Suzanne mettleton — November 5, 2021 @ 6:30 PM

  4. In your recent books you claim to have conducted more than 200,000 scans of brains using your SPECT equipment. If I understand correctly, SPECT targets the areas of the brain where blood perfusion is excessive, normal, or insufficient. I am 77 years old and have very few long-term memories following a very difficult childhood on a farm under a very domineering father. My wife of more than 51+ years feels my “poor memory,” is due to excessive anxiety. Would your body of SPECT scans show poor long-term memory to show insufficient blood to the hippocampus-which purportedly assembles short-term memories into the long-term memories? Is there a publication somewhere I could review your summaries of related SPECT studies for a clue on this? Thank you.

    Comment by Jim Lohr — May 22, 2022 @ 8:04 PM

  5. Hello Jim, thank you for reaching out. We’d be happy to contact you directly with more information. You can find our research and related studies for brain SPECT imaging here: and here

    Comment by Amen Clinics — May 23, 2022 @ 12:37 PM

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