Depression In Your 20s Might Be Linked With Memory Issues In Your 50s, & Here’s How It Works

A woman struggling with depression, sitting with elbows on her knees, holding her head with her hand...
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As candid conversations about metal health become more prevalent, new research emphasizes the importance of early intervention. A study from the University of Sussex in England, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that depression and memory issues may be linked. Researchers analyzed data that followed 18,000 people from birth through their 50s. The data suggested that those who experienced multiple episodes of depression in their 20s, 30s, and 40s were more likely to have memory issues beginning in their 50s.

While a single episode of depression had little effect in the memories of those studied, two or three episodes over three decades predicted a decrease in memory function by age 50. The study suggested that the findings are important because episodes of depression experienced in early adulthood could predict dementia later in life.

"Treating depression earlier (and preventing its recurrence) can decrease the likelihood of cognitive deficits later in life. It’s a strong argument for the effective treatment of depression (whether by antidepressant medications or evidence-based psychotherapy)," Dr. Bradley Gaynes M.D., M.P.H., a professor and the associate chair of research training and education in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, tells Bustle.

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Because the study found that the risk of memory loss is higher in people with multiple episodes of depression, early intervention might help reduce the risk of memory loss. "We found that the more episodes of depression people experience in their adulthood, the higher risk of cognitive impairment they have later in life. This finding highlights the importance of effective management of depression to prevent the development of recurrent mental health problems with long-term negative outcome," Dr. Darya Gaysina, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex, said in a press release.

The research also emphasizes the importance of making mental healthcare accessible to everyone. "With the publication of this research, we're calling for the government to invest in mental health provision to help stem the risk of repeated episodes of depression and anxiety. From an individual's perspective, this research should be a wake up call to do what you can to protect your mental health," University of Sussex Psychology Ph.D. student Amber John said in the press release.

Another study published in the journal Neurology found that depressive episodes contributed to loss of episodic memory — the ability to connect related events. The good news is that Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada has been researching new medications that may be able to reverse this memory loss, another study, published in the journal Molecular Neuropsychiatry, noted.

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Though it's not 100 percent clear how depression contributes to cognitive decline, Healthline reported in a medically reviewed article that there are four ways depression can physically change the brain. Some studies have shown that those who experience depressive episodes could have shrinkage in certain areas of the brain. Shrinkage in the hippocampus in particular — the part of the brain responsible for emotion and memory — can lead to memory loss. Prolonged depression could also lead to brain inflammation and decreased oxygen intake, Healthline noted.

While these studies highlight the importance of early treatment for depression, a new report from Born This Way Foundation found that 50 percent of U.S. young people ages 13 to 24 feel they don't have access to mental healthcare. If you are experiencing depression or anxiety, and you're not sure where to turn, start with your primary care physician.

If you don't have insurance, you can go to the website Low Cost Help and search for free and reduced-cost options by city and state. It's also important to note that just because you've had multiple mental health setbacks, that doesn't mean you're definitely going to develop dementia. This research is ongoing, and an important step toward learning more about the brain with the goal of improving brain health for everyone.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), or call 911.