A new study has shown a link between depression and dementia. But is depression the result of dementia, or is it the other way around? Or do both problems develop from the same underlying issues in the brain?
Inquiring minds wanted to know and these questions were recently answered in a study by Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center and published in the journal Neurology. Researchers here determined that the link between depression and dementia is completely independent of brain changes caused by dementia.
Depression symptoms linked with rapid decline in thinking and memory skills
Study author Robert Wilson looked at 1,764 people with an average age of 77 who were a part of the Religious Orders Study (where more than 1,100 older nuns, priests, and brothers have agreed to medical and psychological evaluation each year and brain donation after death) and the Rush Memory and Aging Project (the ongoing study of seniors to better understand the memory, mobility, and strength challenges that often come with aging).
All of the participants were free of any memory or thinking problems at the time. Every year, for an average of 7.8 years, they were examined for signs of depression, such as reduced appetite and loneliness. They also participated in tests gauging their memory and overall cognitive skills.
During the course of the study, 680 people died. Autopsies were performed on 582 bodies in order to pinpoint brain plaques or tangles associated with dementia, or other types of brain damage.
So what did researchers discover? They found that 315 (or 18 percent) of participants experienced dementia during the study, while 922 (or 52 percent) of them developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This type of cognitive impairment is a common precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.
Depression, dementia, and the link to brain damage levels
Still, no relationship was found between the levels of brain damage among participants and the levels of depressive symptoms or changes in depressive symptoms. This, according to researchers, shows that the relationship between depression and dementia is separate from the brain alterations brought on by dementia.
In fact, they found that those who developed mild cognitive impairment were more likely to experience a higher level of depressive symptoms before their MCI diagnosis. But compared to those who didn’t develop MCI, they were no more likely to have any change in their depressive symptoms after their MCI diagnosis.
Researchers came to this conclusion because the participants who developed dementia were also more likely to experience a higher level of depression before their dementia diagnosis. But following their diagnosis, the depression tended to be reduced significantly.
As a result, a higher level of depressive symptoms was associated with faster cognitive decline, according to study authors.
So if you can’t kick that low mood, you could be putting yourself at risk for dementia. It’s important to ask for help from your doctor.
Depression: a risk factor for dementia
As it turns out, early-onset dementia and depression share similar symptoms. There’s the social withdrawal, memory problems, loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities and hobbies, sleeping too much or too little, and impaired concentration. It can be difficult for physicians to tell the two disorders apart. In addition, many people with dementia are also depressed, which adds another level of confusion in diagnosing.
Commenting on the study results, the author told Medical News Today: “These findings are exciting because they suggest depression truly is a risk factor for dementia, and if we can target and prevent or treat depression and causes of stress, we may have the potential to help people maintain their thinking and memory abilities into old age.”
I think we’d all like to keep our faculties intact and well-oiled as we get older. We should enjoy our golden years!
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