Q Why is it when I feel depressed or anxious, I find I can’t hold a thought in my head?
A Science supports the link between mood difficulties and cognition. There have been studies that show depression and anxiety equally cause problems with attention, memory and concentration (working memory) and impair one’s ability to make decisions (executive function).
Working Memory – Thought process you need to function daily
Executive Function – Thought process you need to problem-solve and make decisions
Baseline – Initial measure of your normal functioning.
One of the things depression-related cognitive impairment does to you is leave you unable to understand when people say to you “It’ll get better,” or “I love you.” When you can’t take in these messages, it feeds the depression, and you might find yourself in a vicious spiral that leads to more severe mood problems.
Another thing that happens if you are an older adult experiencing mood-related cognitive impairment is you might start to think you have the beginnings of dementia. If you convince yourself you have early dementia, you might think there is nothing you can do about it so you don’t seek accurate diagnosis or treatment, again leading to a worsening of symptoms.
Dementia is a disease, and not a normal part of aging. Depression at any age is also a disease, for which there are quite a few treatments, including support group, medication, and talk therapy. Severe depression is not a normal response to aging.
Another consideration: Infection in older adults mimics cognitive impairment as well. In much older adults, this is the first thing that must be ruled out with a sudden onset of confusion and memory problems.
If you are prone to depression or anxiety, it’s important to make sure your doctor knows your baseline cognitive ability, something to measure changes against. Once you treat your mood disorder (or infection), your thinking should clear up, so be brave and get yourself checked out. At the same time, reach out to friends and family, or to the Pioneers Assistance Fund social workers, who can support you through a difficult time.
“How Major Depression Impaired My Cognitive Ability” by Yedidya Erque, available at Nate Kornell Ph.D. Everybody Is Stupid Except You, blog in Psychology Today, Jul 28, 2014.