The Potential Link between Worsening Symptoms of Depression and Dementia

Depression is, of course, a mood disorder, whereas dementia is a degenerative neurological disorder — at first, they do not appear to be connected, right? Well, for those who are caring for someone with dementia, you know that poor mood can be a symptom of this disorder or even a side effect of certain medications.

So, we know that depression and dementia are interlinked, but could be worsening poor mood be an indication that you’re at an increased risk of cognitive decline? According to a new study, it’s been suggested that worsening symptoms of depression, may actually point to early dementia.

Intriguing Results Found in New Dutch Study 

Within a new study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers cannot prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship. However, they have said that their findings are highly interesting. At this time, it appears that there’s a direct overlap between the development of dementia and depression.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to note that no every depressed senior will develop dementia and that further research needs to be conducted before a definitive connection is made. With that being said, based on these recent findings, this connection is most certainly worth exploring.

Tracking symptoms in more than 3,300 adults, who were aged 55 or older, researchers followed these participants, focusing on depressive symptoms for a total of 11 years. For another 10 years, they were then monitored for signs of dementia — during this follow-up, 434 participants had developed dementia, which included 348 cases of Alzheimer’s.

This research team found that only those who experienced worsening symptoms of depression over time were at an increased risk for dementia. Of course, not everyone in that higher risk group developed dementia — only approximately 22 percent did. So why is this so relevant?

Well, the number of individuals who did develop dementia, was much higher than the group of individuals who exhibited fewer symptoms of depression. In fact, only around 10 percent of those who had a low level of depression over time developed dementia.

This rate was similar to those who displayed remitting symptoms of depression. Meaning, those who experienced the coming and going of symptoms. Based on these findings, it appears that when temporary, even severe depression does not have a long-term effect on dementia risk.

What’s the Connection?

At this time, research is still developing, and although this link has not been confirmed, these recent findings do support prior research. It appears that increasing symptoms of depression in older adults may reflect the early stages of dementia in some patients.

It’s believed that certain types of depression and dementia, may share a common cause. Meaning, these findings could raise critical questions regarding the role of depression screening and treatment when assessing dementia risk — potentially helping to fill in some of the mysterious unknowns regarding dementia-related conditions.

Within a 2013 review, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, 23 studies were examined. It was found that late-life depression was associated with a significant risk of all-cause dementia. This has been reported in a wide range of studies, time and time again — yet researchers are still unsure what the true connection is. There are a few key theories that persist, with this new study potentially confirming some of these suggestions.

One theory is, of course, that the relationship between dementia and depression, is based on an early warning sign. For those who exhibit symptoms of depression, this could be an indication of what’s to come. Does the budding dementia cause symptoms of depression? This could potentially explain why worsening symptoms lead to the onset of dementia.

Another theory is that persistent and worsening symptoms of depression, actually damage the brain itself. Due to chronic stress, elevated levels of cortisol may wreck havoc on brain tissue and even brain size. Some researchers suggest that depression can reduce brain volume, once again, increasing one’s risk of cognitive decline.

At this point, it’s best to be aware of your health — treat symptoms of depression immediately. Living with depression not only reduces your quality of life, but it may directly threaten your future well-being in more ways than one. Implementing a balanced diet and exercise can make a significant difference.

In fact, studies have shown that regular exercise decreases your risk of dementia while boosting endorphin levels — promoting a more positive mindset. Another simple tip to remember is that if something is good for your heart, it’s also good for your brain. Develop healthy habits today, in order to protect your future mental and physical health.

photo credit: Silent Spiral 05 via photopin (license)

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