When teenagers and younger adults experience memory problems, it is natural to fear that it may be something sinister and irreversible. After all, the media is full of stories about people with dementia. It seems as though these days every family is worrying about Alzheimer’s disease. While awareness of these things is important, they can also feed our fears and make us afraid of seeking medical advice. We may fear that our worst expectations may be confirmed.
Our Fears and Reality
The reality is that when younger people experience memory loss, the causes are very different. Causes can range from the results of concussion or traumatic brain injury on the sports field to seizures, alcohol and drug experimentation. Even too many late nights and exam stress can affect our memories.
Many of these things can be rectified with treatment or will improve with time or lifestyle changes. Did you know that depression is actually one of the most common causes of depression in young people today?
Teenage Moods and Depression
Yes, depression is a surprisingly common cause of memory problems in teenagers and young adults. The extent of the problem is only just coming to light as behavioural issues may be ascribed to ‘typical teenage moodiness’ or the sufferer may be very adept at disguising their depression, putting on a cheerful face to the world. There is a lot of truth behind the mask of the weeping clown.
We are not talking about feeling blue after breaking up with a boyfriend but the relentless leaden weight of being dragged down by a sense of hopelessness for months with no light at the end of the tunnel.
As the stigma of mental illnesses lifts and we are more open about talking about how we feel about our mental health, we find that actually we aren’t alone. More people are sharing the same experiences and worries. It is time to speak up and look for help rather than fighting on alone. Many high schools, colleges and universities have counsellors who can offer sensible practical advice on how to find help so don’t be afraid to ask.
Seeking Professional Help
It is not our place here to discuss depression with all its ramifications here – for more information about depression as an illness, please see a skilled mental health advisor or counsellor. What we are looking at here is how depression can impact memory in a way that affects everyday life.
The first thing to remember is that when depression is treated, the memory problems often go away of their own accord. These days new generation drugs for depression such as SSRIs and MAOs help to alleviate the symptoms of depression and elevate mood without leaving the patient feeling drugged and ‘out of it’ like the anti-depressants of the past. While memory loss was often listed as a side effect of old-school anti-depressants, this is no longer the case so don’t be afraid that what your doctor prescribes for you will turn you into a zombie!
People with depression often have low levels of serotonin in their blood. This is the naturally-occurring brain chemical or neurotransmitter that is thought to regulate mood, anxiety and happiness. It also has cognitive functions and that includes memory. Modern treatments for depression work on this, improving serotonin levels beyond what can be achieved through diet and exercise.
Did You Really Forget – Or Did You Never Know in the First Place?
Apart from low levels of neurotransmitting chemicals in your brain, if you are feeling seriously depressed you are less likely to want to engage with the world. Attention problems and lack of interest in life and events may mean that you are not concentrating on what is going on around you or what you are told. It is not so much a case of forgetting things as not making memories in the first place. The first step in making a memory is awareness through your senses so if you are lost in apathy or are distracted by your own thoughts, you are not picking up the information you need to remember in the first place.
The Effects of Depression on the Brain
On-going depression can cause changes in the brain that show up in scans, including shrinkage of the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped part of the brain that is crucial for turning short term memories into longer term ones. This means that potentially the longer depression goes untreated the more severe memory problems could become. Any part of the brain that is not used and exercised shrinks to actively engaging making new memories is actually important. Another good reason for seeking professional help.
Engage with the World
Improving focus and making a conscious effort to be aware of what is going on around you is an important part of making memories and remembering things. Mindfulness exercises can help with this, as can activities that force you to become involved externally and are likely to lead to a positive outcome.
This doesn’t have to be as complicated as it sounds. Baking a favourite cake to share with a loved one, taking the dog for a walk in the park, riding a tandem bicycle with a friend are some suggestions. Avoid solitary activities as they encourage you to internalise and dwell on your thoughts rather than opening you up to new ones.
Write and Repeat to Remember
If you are afraid you are going to forget what you have been told, write it down straight away or repeat it back so that you are forcing yourself to engage. Repetition is a crucial part of shifting stuff through the hippocampus into longer term memory.
For some reason writing things down with pen and paper reinforces memory pathways better than typing them into devices. The memo function on your phone may help to remind you what you came to the shop for, it won’t help much with exam prep. For that, old fashioned note taking in class and then writing up the notes in longhand still works best!
Remember the Good as Well as the Bad Times
People with depression are more likely to remember bad or unhappy memories that feed their feelings of hopelessness and negativity rather than good or happy memories. Constantly reminiscing over the bad makes these memories stronger with repetition and may eventually block out the good ones altogether. Dig out the photograph albums and look at the good things. Remember that there were also happy memories and they should also be taken out sometimes and looked at.
One thing you may be sure of, if it is depression that is causing your memory problems, they can be solved by treating your underlying depression. Isn’t that something to be happy about?