Feeling sad could fuel cognitive decline in older adults

LONDON — As we age, it’s not uncommon to experience occasional forgetfulness or feelings of sadness. For many older adults, however, these seemingly minor issues can spiral into a devastating cycle of depression and cognitive decline.

The findings, in a nutshell

New research published in JAMA Network Open reveals a startling connection between depressive symptoms and memory loss, showing that these two conditions can fuel each other over time. The findings suggest that identifying and treating depression early on could be key to protecting brain health and preserving memory in our later years.

“Our study shows that the relationship between depression and poor memory cuts both ways, with depressive symptoms preceding memory decline and memory decline linked to subsequent depressive symptoms,” says Dr. Dorina Cadar of the UCL Department of Behavioral Science & Health and Brighton and Sussex Medical School in a media release.


To unravel the complex relationship between mood and memory, researchers from University College London and Brighton and Sussex Medical School analyzed data from over 8,000 participants over the age of 50 from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. Participants were followed for up to 16 years, undergoing regular assessments of their memory, verbal fluency, and depressive symptoms.

Using sophisticated statistical modeling techniques, the researchers examined whether depressive symptoms and cognitive performance influenced each other over time. They looked at both the immediate cross-sectional associations and the long-term reciprocal effects while controlling for a range of demographic, health, and lifestyle factors.


The results paint a striking picture of how depressive symptoms and memory decline are intertwined. At any given point in time, individuals with more depressive symptoms tended to perform worse on memory and verbal fluency tests. However, the relationship didn’t end there.

Over the course of the study, people who started out with more depressive symptoms experienced a faster rate of memory loss compared to those with fewer symptoms. In turn, poorer initial memory function predicted a greater increase in depressive symptoms over time. This suggests a vicious cycle where depression accelerates memory decline, which then worsens mood symptoms.

Intriguingly, the reciprocal relationship was strongest for memory, while the link with verbal fluency was less clear. The researchers suspect this may be due to the different brain regions and cognitive processes involved in these two abilities, as well as the fact that verbal fluency tends to decline more slowly with age.

Rather than being a one-way street, the findings suggest that depressive symptoms and memory loss can reinforce each other over time. (© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)


Rather than being a one-way street, the findings suggest that depressive symptoms and memory loss can reinforce each other over time, leading to a faster decline in both mental health and cognitive functioning.

The implications for clinical practice are profound. For individuals presenting with depressive symptoms, regular memory assessments may be warranted to detect early signs of cognitive decline. Conversely, older adults experiencing memory problems should be screened for depression, as addressing mood symptoms could help slow further cognitive deterioration.

The results also highlight the importance of taking an integrated approach to mental health and cognitive care in older populations. Rather than treating these issues in isolation, clinicians should consider the complex interplay between mood and memory and develop comprehensive interventions that target both domains.

Of course, further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying this reciprocal relationship and to identify the most effective strategies for breaking the cycle. But one thing is clear: by recognizing the link between depression and memory loss, we can take important steps towards safeguarding brain health and promoting psychological well-being in our later years.

StudyFinds Editor-in-Chief Steve Fink contributed to this report.