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How Does Depression Affect Cognitive Functioning?

Written and reviewed by
Dr. Neelam Mishra 90% (47 ratings)
Post Graduate in Rehabilitation Psychology, MA Clinical Psychology, BA Applied Psychology
Psychologist, Delhi  •  7 years experience
How Does Depression Affect Cognitive Functioning?

Depression can affect anyone at any stage of life. Although the exact cause of depression is not known, scientists and psychologists believe that a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors are responsible for the onset of a mental disorder.

When we think of clinical depression, we usually associate loss of interest in activities, a persistent feeling of sadness, and certain behavioural changes with it. Well, depression does alter your usual habits – eating and sleeping patterns – but what’s more surprising is that it also can change your cognitive functioning.

The Link between Depression and Cognitive Functioning:

Cognitive functions refer to the mental process, which permits us to carry on a number of tasks on a daily basis. This includes memory, attention/concentration, decision-making and others. According to a new study, long-term depression can impair your cognitive skills as well as your ability to process information. It can even reduce your cognitive flexibility –the ability to adapt one’s strategies and goals to changing circumstances – as well as executive functioning – the ability to take steps necessary to get a particular job done.

Here is how depression affects one’s cognitive functioning –

• Attention/Concentration: People with depression often find it hard to concentrate or give their full attention to a particular thing. In fact, the reduced ability to concentrate is one of the major symptoms of depression. What exactly causes attention problems in depression are not known yet, but it is believed that the brain’s grey matter plays an important role in this regard.

People with bipolar depression (characterized by mood swings ranging from depressive lows to maniac highs) and unipolar depression (characterized by suicidal thoughts and slow activity) encounter concentration problems.

• Memory: Depression and memory loss are linked closely to one another. Researchers found that people with depression faced trouble when asked to identify objects that are similar or identical to the objects they had seen. This clearly indicates that depression is associated with short-term memory loss, confusion, and forgetfulness – you may not remember the details of a significant event or forget what you just ate during lunch. However, the mental disorder does not affect one’s procedural or long-term memory, which controls one’s motor skills.

• Executive Functioning: Depression impairs your executive functioning, which in turn affects your information processing ability. The impairment may come in the way of routine tasks, such as paying the bills or keeping in mind to return a phone call. Executive functioning of the brain helps us shift focus, manage time, organize, plan, and remember vital details. Executive function problems are usually critical and are more likely to occur when the individual is extremely sad, stressed, or sleep deprived.

• Decision-making: A core symptom of depression and related disorders is difficulty in making decisions. People suffering from depression tend to be indecisive or poor decision makers. The reason for this may be an attempt to minimize regrets later in life. If a person makes an active decision that leads to an unfavourable, undesired outcome, he/she feels worse and holds himself or herself responsible for the bad outcome. Delay or refusal in making a decision is a way of accepting the default option. Even if things do not turn up as expected, at least you are not responsible for the consequences.

When depression hits you, it is hard to be the best version of yourself. Living with depression is certainly difficult but with early diagnosis and treatment – psychotherapy and light therapy – one may be able to cope with the related symptoms.

Consult a psychologist right away. He/she can suggest certain measures to improve your cognitive functioning and help you get back to normal life soon.

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