Depression Linked to Brain Aging and Alzheimer’s

A recent study appearing in ScienceDaily reveals a link between depression and an acceleration of the rate at which the brain ages. While scientists have known for some time that people with depression or anxiety have an increased risk of dementia later in life, this marks the first study that offers comprehensive evidence linking the effect of depression and a decline in cognitive function in overall population. This is eye-opening news if you have a loved one in hospice suffering from Alzheimer’s in San Francisco.

Published last month in the journal Psychological Medicine, researchers conducted 34 studies that focused on the link between depression or anxiety and decline in cognitive function, involving about 71,000 participants. Anyone diagnosed with dementia at the beginning of the study were excluded so researchers could better assess the impact of depression on cognitive aging. The study showed that those with depression had a more significant decline in cognitive state in older adulthood vs. people without depression. The goal of the study is to promote awareness of mental health issues and how they affect our brains as we age.

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that interferes with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms tend to develop slowly and worsen over time, eventually impairing the undertaking of daily tasks. It’s the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a normal part of aging.

Stress Effects and Risk Factors

Over our lifetimes, the effects of chronic stress can build up and put us at risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not just the stress that harms us, it’s how we react to the stress that can increase that risk. Chronic stress results in the constant release of the stress hormone, cortisol.   In high doses, this has been shown to cause brain cell dysfunction, killing off brain cells and causing brain atrophy, according to Psychology Today.

As we age, our biological systems become dysregulated. Cortisol levels rise but they also stay up for longer periods of time and go down slower. When we are dis-stressed, we fall victim to the psychological effects of stress, which means those negative effects last longer, in which time more brain cells may die off. See the cycle?

Depression and Alzheimer’s

Depression has long been linked with Alzheimer’s; in fact, depression is often the first sign of this memory impairing disease. It can be tough to identify depression in someone with Alzheimer’s, as dementia can cause many of the same symptoms. Examples of symptoms that are common to both depression and dementia include:

  • Apathy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Isolation
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired thinking

On top of all that, the cognitive impairment that comes with Alzheimer’s can make it harder for sufferers to articulate their feelings, such as sadness, hopelessness and guilt, says the Alzheimer’s Association. It can be tricky: depression in Alzheimer’s doesn’t always reveal itself the way it does in those without Alzheimer’s. Check out the ways that depression in a person with Alzheimer’s can differ:

  • Often is less severe
  • May not last as long, with symptoms coming and going
  • Less likely to talk about or attempt suicide

Caregivers who notice signs of depression should bring these to the attention of their loved one’s primary care doctor, as proper diagnosis and treatment goes a long way toward improving a sense of well-being and function. Treatment for depression in those with Alzheimer’s can include antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), due to the lower risk over other types of antidepressants. Physical exercise can also help with symptoms of depression, as can support groups and participation in social activities.

Overall, depression can strongly impact the quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s disease, leading to worsening cognitive decline, lowered ability to handle daily living skills, and increased dependence on caregivers.

Looking out for the Warning Signs

Detecting depression in people who have Alzheimer’s disease is not always easy, but doctors have to rely heavily on nonverbal cues and caregiver reports, as self-reported symptoms can be unreliable. If your loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s shows one of the first two symptoms show here as well as at least two others within a two-week period of time, depression may be present, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Significantly depressed mood
  • Reduced pleasure in usual activities
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Agitation or lethargy
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

We have many dementia care resources designed to help families and their loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s. Please contact us to learn more at 888-755-7855. You can count on us for expert care in your time of need.