Depression is one of the most common conditions affecting older adults. According to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, an estimated 15% of people older than 65 are dealing with depression. Symptoms include a persistent feeling of sadness, lack of energy, and changes in normal eating and sleeping. People with depression may also have problems with memory and concentration, and lose interest in their usual activities.
Depression May Mimic Alzheimer’s Disease
If you compare these symptoms to those of Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions, you will notice some striking similarities. Many of the symptoms of depression are known to mimic dementia. In fact, families and even healthcare providers may at first mistakenly suspect that a patient with depression has Alzheimer’s disease. Ruling out depression is an important first step in diagnosing dementia.
Depression Might Be a Symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease … and Might Also Raise the Risk
Further complicating things, depression itself may be an early sign of dementia. And if depression is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, could it also be a risk factor? The American Academy of Neurology states that depression may nearly double a person’s risk of developing dementia. What is the connection? Why would a history of depression make it more likely that a person will suffer cognitive losses later in life?
While researchers are testing different theories to answer those questions, there is one thing they agree on: Depression makes it much less likely that we will follow a healthy lifestyle that protects our memory health. It saps our will and motivation and our desire to be active or eat well.
Report Symptoms of Depression
This is yet another reason to seek professional help if you or a loved one shows signs of depression. Depression can become disabling if not properly treated. All too often, people are resistant to the idea that they might have depression, feeling that somehow they will “just snap out of it.” But depression is an illness that results from a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can respond successfully to treatment.
The first step in reversing depression is to have it diagnosed by a physician or other qualified professional.
Diagnosis of depression in a person who has already been diagnosed with dementia may be challenging. It’s important to work with a healthcare professional who understands that both the symptoms and treatment of depression in a person with dementia may not be typical. Treatment for depression may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Patients are advised to improve their nutrition, spend more time with others, increase physical activity, make more time for enjoyable activities, manage other health conditions, and confront and deal with negative thoughts.
It’s not always possible for a person with depression to work through troubling thoughts on their own. Talking with a mental health professional may help them identify the stressors that have led to depression, learn how to lessen those stresses, and change negative thoughts.
Antidepressants work by helping restore the normal level of beneficial brain chemicals. These medications can help with sleep, improve energy, and reduce anxiety and negative thoughts. It is important to work closely with the healthcare provider to find the best medication for each patient. This may take several months.
Many older adults avoid seeking help for depression. They may believe in self-sufficiency and in keeping one’s problems to oneself. Seniors should be encouraged to understand that treating depression is no different from treating any other illness. Professional help can let them get their lives back on track. And now we know it may also protect their brains!