May 17th, 2013 at 10:00 am
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Depressed elders at risk of dementia?

by ECL Staff

A growing number of Americans are developing dementia, with this progressive brain disease causing problems such as memory loss and confusion. And older adults struggling with depression are even more likely to battle dementia.

The American Association of Retired Persons estimates that almost one in five baby boomers could develop dementia in their lifetime. A recently released study from the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychiatry says depressed adults over the age of 50 are more likely to develop vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who are not depressed.

Depression and dementia: what’s the connection?

A New York Times blog mentions that a link has been suggested previously between Alzheimer’s disease and depression, but this new study also notes the connection to vascular dementia, caused by an impaired blood flow to the brain, which can be the result of a stroke.

The University of Pittsburgh study examines the link between dementia and depression in older adults, based on data from 23 prior studies. The results, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, show increased risks for individuals with late-life depression. They are 1.85 times more likely to develop all-cause dementia, 1.65 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and 2.52 times more likely to develop vascular dementia.

The New York Times blog post by Judith Graham explores different theories on the connection between depression and dementia. For example, depressed people may have high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is related to stress response, or a smaller hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an important part in long-term memory. Graham also refers to research on chronic inflammation, which damages blood vessels and reduces blood flow in the brain, and is common in people with depression. Other researchers suggest links between genetics, depression and dementia.

What can caregivers do?

This University of Pittsburgh study stresses the importance of the early diagnosis and prevention of depression. If you are a caregiver and you suspect an elder is becoming depressed, it’s a good idea to seek a medical opinion. Another blog post describes how diagnosing depression in elders can be difficult. The National Institute of Mental Health lists some warning signs of depression to watch out for, such as feeling nervous, empty, worthless, restless, irritable and unloved.

Depression can be associated not only with aging but with the stressful demands of caregiving as well. Another ElderCarelink article looks at depression in caregivers, with some ideas on how to care for yourself as well as your loved ones.

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