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Dementia

Depression And Dementia: Are They Related?

Granddaughter holding grandmother's hands

Depression and dementia share a lot of symptoms, and researchers have long known that the two go hand-in-hand. The undeniable connection between these two conditions has spurred a great deal of research in recent years.

A clear cause-and-effect relationship, meaning whether the early pathology of dementia causes depression, or depression contributes to the onset of dementia, is hard to prove and this question is still being investigated by scientists. However, one thing that is certain is that the two conditions are strongly related, and together they create more suffering and complications than either condition alone.

Does Depression Increase The Risk Of Dementia?

Several studies focused on clarifying the relationship between these two mental health conditions have shed some light on how depression might affect a person’s risk for cognitive decline. One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that the emergence of depressive symptoms in midlife, late life or both are associated with an increased risk of dementia. The study found that people who became depressed late in life had a 70% increased risk of dementia, and those who’d been depressed since middle age were at 80% greater risk.

 

Other studies have also found similar associations such as that having depression later in life can double the risk of developing dementia.

The link between depression and dementia is even more significant considering that depression becomes more common with age. As you get older, all of the following situations may put you at risk for depression:

  • Experiencing side effects from medicines you’re taking for health conditions
  • Having to face the death of a spouse, friends, or family members
  • Having to move out of your home and into a smaller apartment, or an assisted living facility

While several studies have found a link between depression and dementia in the elderly, it’s difficult to establish causality. Most studies show a link between later-life depression and dementia onset (within a decade or so); however, as most studies do not find associations with early-life depression and dementia onset, there’s also a possibility that depression is a symptom of the earliest stages of dementia. Scientists are still investigating this question.

The Main Signs Of Depression

  • Avoiding contact with friends and taking part in fewer social activities
  • Changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased but sometimes increased)
  • Continuous low mood or sadness
  • Feeling anxious, worried, hopeless, helpless, and tearful
  • Feeling irritable and intolerant of others
  • Finding it difficult to make decisions
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having no motivation or interest in things
  • Having suicidal thoughts
  • Lack of energy
  • Neglecting your hobbies and interests
  • Not getting any enjoyment out of life
  • Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • Unexplained aches and pains

While these are textbook symptoms of depression, they also happen to be hallmark behavioral changes related to many kinds of dementia, including the two most common types, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. In fact, the early and middle stages of dementia and depression share so many symptoms that even physicians sometimes find it challenging to differentiate the two, especially because they often co-occur.

What To Do If a Person With Dementia Experiences Depression

When depression accompanies dementia, identifying and treating it can improve life for seniors and their caregivers alike. However, finding depression is not always easy, as conditions like low thyroid or sleep apnea can sometimes create depression-like symptoms, taking the attention away from a medical problem that needs its own treatment. There is no single test or questionnaire to detect depression, and as a person with dementia may find it difficult to express themselves, you most likely have to rely on other clues in their behavior. A trained professional like an in-home caregiver can also help spot depression.

 

Just as it’s important for people with depression alone to get treatment, it’s equally crucial for people with dementia and depression to get treatment for their depression. If you suspect that depression may be affecting your loved one with dementia, the first step is to talk to a doctor who will be able to carry out a thorough examination. Medication such as an antidepressant may be prescribed and can be very helpful in improving the symptoms of sadness and may improve appetite and sleep problems.

On top of this, there are ways you can help your loved one with dementia cope with their depression and mood changes as well. Scheduling pleasant and meaningful activities, helping them structure their day in a consistent and meaningful way, and problem-solving around issues contributing to distress may all help decrease their anxiety. Helping your loved one eat a healthy diet, engage in physical exercise, and continuing hobbies they’ve once enjoyed may also help improve their mood.

For more articles on dementia and aged adult care, browse our blog.

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