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Depression and Dementia: Is There a Link?

Depression and Dementia: Is There a Link?

This material has been reviewed for accuracy by: Renee Albers, PhD

Senior couple on park bench in fall, demonstrating concept of depression and dementia linkSeptember is Healthy Aging Month, an annual awareness event created to highlight the positive aspects of aging—and to find the right ways to stay healthy and happy as the years go by. While many use this month to remind Baby Boomers of the importance of physical health—eating right, exercising regularly, and getting regular check-ups—mental health is also a critical aspect of healthy aging. And it’s important to make sure you are doing what you can to stay mentally and emotionally healthy, too.

That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to depression symptoms as we age. We know that women often experience depression around the time of menopause . And older individuals may also experience the blues when faced with retirement, empty nests and health ailments. But depression should never be taken lightly. Perhaps even more so now that researchers have tied increasing depressive symptoms with dementia, or a sharp decline in mental faculties and memory.

The depression-dementia connection

Most clinicians can tell you that both depression and dementia are often seen in elderly patients. We already discussed some of the biological and situational reasons why older individuals may feel down. Many of those same factors are also present in dementia. The fact that so many individuals had both disorders led some scientists to believe that depression and dementia were linked.

But it’s always been a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Were the precursors of dementia causing depression? Was it the brain changes in depression that might herald the rise of cognitive issues? Or were the two just common, but unlinked, issues—as elderly individuals often have a host of medical issues ranging from heart disease to problems with mobility? The answer wasn’t clear.

New research: a possible answer?

But, recently, a research group in the Netherlands shed some light on the issue . This group of epidemiologists followed more than 3,000 individuals 55 years and older who did not have signs of dementia but had some issues of depression—and they did so for more than 10 years. They then continued to assess them for another 10 years to look for signs of dementia. By tracking the trajectories of depressive symptoms, the group found that individuals whose symptoms of depression increased over time showed a significantly heightened risk to go on and develop dementia later.

While this study cannot show a definite causal relationship, the patterns of depression offer an interesting insight into how these disorders may be related. The researchers hypothesize that increasing symptoms of depression in elderly individuals may be a symptom of early stage dementia—and is something that should be watched carefully by family members, caregivers, and physicians.

So, for this year’s Healthy Aging Month, give yourself a mental health gut check. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression—extreme fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, irritability, and/or loss of interest in the things you enjoy—don’t just write those feelings off as the Baby Boomer blues. Talk to your doctor and get any help you might need so you can continue to live a healthy, happy, and high-quality life for as long as possible.

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