Dementia is a devastating illness that affects practically every aspect of your health and well-being. While most people focus on the cognitive impacts of dementia, the disease can also be damaging to your mental health. For instance, research suggests that there’s a strong connection between dementia and depression.
Some seniors develop depression after they start to feel the effects of cognitive decline. In other cases, depression earlier in life may be a contributing factor to dementia. If you have an aging loved one, you should understand the link between depression and dementia in the elderly and what you can do to offer support.
Depression as a Cause of Dementia
Experts aren’t fully sure why depression appears to be a risk factor for dementia. However, numerous studies show that adults with depression earlier in life develop dementia at higher rates. For example, one study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that participants diagnosed with depression in their 40s and 50s had a three-fold increase in the risk of developing vascular dementia. Participants who were diagnosed with depression later in life had a two-fold increase in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study conducted in Sweden found that people diagnosed with depression are more likely to develop dementia. According to this research, the risk is at its greatest in the first year following a depression diagnosis. Then, the risk gradually declines but stays somewhat elevated for at least 20 years.
Numerous other studies show a connection between depression and dementia in the elderly, too. There are several possible explanations for this link, but it’s likely a combination of biological and environmental factors.
Biological Impacts of Depression
Depression can have a dramatic impact on the structure and function of your brain. These effects could affect your memory and overall cognition. For instance, depression may cause higher levels of cortisol, one of the body’s primary stress hormones. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can impact short-term memory. Additionally, chronic stress can impair the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for storing memories.
Environmental Impacts of Depression
Depression may also increase the risk of dementia because of how it affects your behaviors. When you’re depressed, you might disengage from your hobbies and isolate yourself from your loved ones. People with depression sometimes withdraw from almost all of their normal activities. This lack of engagement can make your brain suffer, and it can ultimately increase your risk of cognitive decline.
Dementia as a Cause of Depression
People with depression are more likely to develop dementia, but people with dementia are also likely to start showing depressive symptoms. One study found that around 30% of people with dementia may have major depression. Some seniors may have had depression before their dementia diagnosis, and others may have developed it after.
Dementia is an extremely painful and confusing illness, and the onset of symptoms can take a toll on your mental health. The following are a few ways that cognitive decline may cause depressive episodes:
Fear of Cognitive Decline
Dementia is a very frightening diagnosis. In the early stages of cognitive decline, the individual is usually aware that their memory is slipping. Feeling out of control in your own mind can make you feel extremely anxious, agitated, or depressed. Many seniors feel lost, hopeless, or numb after their dementia diagnosis.
Social isolation is a serious concern for older adults with dementia. As a senior loses their independence, they may lose opportunities to socialize and enjoy their community. People tend to withdraw as the cognitive decline progresses, too. Strong social connections are essential for maintaining good mental health, so loneliness could play a major role in the link between dementia and depression.
Fatigue can be both physical and mental. The middle and later stages of dementia can cause serious physical exhaustion, preventing the individual from engaging in activities or getting out into the community. Dementia can also be mentally fatiguing as it causes an increased sensitivity to sounds, lights, and other stimuli. This exhaustion can have a significant impact on your overall emotional state.
Caring for Someone with Dementia and Depression
Dementia and depression are closely linked, but the symptoms of depression often go unnoticed. Social isolation, lack of energy, and other classic depressive symptoms are also symptoms of dementia. Identifying depression in your aging loved one is an important first step in helping them.
A loss of interest in preferred activities is often a sign that someone is struggling with depression. A senior with dementia may still show interest in their favorite activities from time to time, but a depressed individual may lose all motivation. Significant changes in sleeping or eating habits can be a sign of depression, too.
As a caregiver, you can support your aging loved one by helping them stay active and socially engaged. Encourage them to participate in their favorite hobbies, and make sure they get quality time with friends and family. Keep in mind that loud or high-energy activities can be overstimulating to someone with dementia, though. You might have to find creative ways to make activities comfortable and accessible for your loved one.
Empathy is also vital as your loved one goes through the stages of cognitive decline. Sometimes, people just need a listening ear. Simply being present with your loved one can be a valuable experience for both of you.
In the middle or later stages of dementia, talk therapy may not be an appropriate option. However, senior counseling can be very helpful in the early stages of cognitive decline. Therapy is a highly effective treatment for depression no matter the individual’s age. A counselor can help your loved one explore their emotions and develop coping skills to handle the challenges they’re facing.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides mental health services for seniors with dementia and depression. If you or a loved one is dealing with the mental health impacts of cognitive decline, contact us today for support.