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Aging, Mental Illness and Memory

I remember when my memory made school easy and quick recall led to great success in my career. Lately, my memory has surprised me. It’s bad and getting worse.

I’m 56, so some cognitive decline is to be expected.  But some of the things I’ve forgotten really shock me.

I was at the playground with some kids and their parents.  The sister of one of the moms was there, and we talked about where she was from; the work she did; the kind of small talk you would have with someone you just met.  I told my friend it was great to meet her sister.

She told me that her sister and I took all the kids to music class together just two weeks before.

I had no idea who she was.

A British longitudinal study has followed the health of 9,385 people born in 1958.  The researchers have collected health information periodically over 60 years, and recorded affective symptoms at ages 23, 33, 42 and 50 years old.

Some of the subjects were identified with affective disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder.

At age 50 the subjects were given full cognitive work-ups, as researchers sought any signs of cognitive impairment.  The researchers found significant memory lapses in those with an affective disorder.

Short-term memory loss can be expected at age 50, but the subjects with affective disorders also reported problems with long-term memory.

The study reports that: “accumulation of affective symptoms across three decades of adulthood (from age 23 to age 50) was associated with poorer cognitive function in midlife,” and, specifically, with poorer memory.

The researchers write that they find the severity of the impairment surprising.  The larger the number of affective episodes over the three-decade period measured, the more significant the memory loss.

I have gaps in my life memory that I have long attributed to my bipolar disorder.  I had ECT 20 years ago and thought that may have something to do with it.  It may, but so may the cognitive implications of just having had episodes of mania and depression.

It gets uncomfortable. People I barely know recall things we did years ago.  Things that I can’t place.  It continues, too.  I was at a meeting during which a woman present seemed to know a lot about me. She looked at me awkwardly when I introduced myself.  It was snowing outside and she asked if we were having class that evening.  It turned out that she was in a meditation class I had been teaching for three weeks.

I was at the funeral for a friend I knew in high school late last year.  I remembered almost no one who was there.  I never took many pictures as I aged, so much of what I did is gone to the ravages of bipolar disorder.  Movies, books, songs I used to play on the guitar, all gone as well.

There is still hope. The British study recommends maintaining strong relationships with friends and family, taking up physical exercise, or practicing mindfulness meditation as ways to improve memory and boost mental health.  I think keeping a journal or diary that you can refer back to is a great help, too.  And you’ll leave a wonderful treasure of memories for future generations.

I still have a lot of memories left.  It’s good to know that there are things I can do to hold onto them when my bipolar disorder puts them at risk.



Aging, Mental Illness and Memory

George Hofmann

George is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, from Changemakers Books. Visit George's site or join the Facebook group Practicing Mental Illness

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2019). Aging, Mental Illness and Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 May 2019
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