Feature Archive

Too Depressed to Remember

Why are many elderly people forgetful? It may be the blues.

WebMD Feature

April 17, 2000 (Berkeley, Calif.) -- For years, Maria Cusenza's three children didn't worry much about her. Through her 60s and early 70s, Cusenza was a busy woman living in her own apartment in San Francisco. But in recent years the situation has changed. Cusenza, now 80, has marked memory loss. By afternoon, she forgets a conversation she had that morning. During the week she forgets a weekend outing.

"We have to check on her more often, to make sure she is healthy and safe," says Dorothy Cusenza, 57, one of Maria's two daughters. For the first time Cusenza and her family are talking about home helpers, retirement homes, or having Mom move in with one of her kids. As her forgetfulness increases, she sinks farther and farther into depression.

Doctors are still trying to determine why Cusenza's memory is fading; they say there's little they can do. But her family wonders if her depression might be causing her memory problems rather than the other way around.

They are intrigued by new research showing that stress and depression may cause some forms of memory loss. The research is important because it suggests that not all memory loss is an inevitable part of aging. '"If you look at a patient as having irreversible dementia, you won't do anything," says Sonia Lupien, PhD, a neuroscientist at Douglas Hospital in Montreal. "If you treat the depression, you can stop the increase of cortisol and prevent the memory loss."