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New Research Shows Depression is a Risk Factor for Dementia

gloomy day
gloomy day
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Up until now, most health professionals thought of depression as a symptom of dementia, and /or that depression and dementia both stem from the same underlying problems in the brain. Or, that they have no common pathological cause.

It’s typical for newly diagnosed dementia and Alzheimer’s patients to get depressed. They’ve just been given a heavy diagnosis and the future looks grim. A new study, however, indicates that depression is actually a risk factor for dementia, independent of changes that occur in the brain.

According to Robert S. Wilson, PHD, neuropsychiatrist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and lead author of the study published in the online issue of Neurology® (July 30, 14), this study is significant because “if we can target and prevent or treat depression and causes of stress we may have the potential to help people maintain their thinking and memory abilities into old age.”

The study included 1,764 people with an average age of 77 who had no thinking or memory problems at the start of the study. Participants were screened every year for symptoms of depression, including loneliness and lack of appetite, and took tests on their thinking and memory skills over an eight-year period.

A total of 680 people died during the study, and autopsies were performed on 582 of them to look for plaques and tangles in the brain, the main indicators of dementia and Alzheimer’s. During the study, 922 people, or 52 % of the participants, developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). A total of 315 people, or 18%, developed dementia.

The researchers found no relationship between how much damage was found in the brain and the level of depression symptoms that people had or in the change of symptoms they had over time.

Who is at risk for depression?
Depression tends to run in families. If someone in your family has suffered from depression, mental illness, chemical dependency, or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), your chances of getting depressed are much greater. After puberty, women are twice as likely as men to get depressed.

The warning signs of depression
• Depressed mood on most days, for most of the day
• Significant increase or decrease in appetite and/or weight
• Loss of energy and extreme fatigue
• Diminished pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable
• Disrupted sleep patterns, either more or less than usual
• Feelings of guilt and worthlessness
• Feelings of agitation or intense lethargy
• Inability to concentrate
• Thoughts of death and suicide

Getting help
If you suspect you or another family member is suffering from depression, there are a number of holistic and allopathic therapies that are beneficial:

• Although stress is a trigger for depression, and not a cause, if you have a lot of stress in your life, deal with it before it snowballs into a bigger problem. Herbs such as ashwaghanda, got kola, passion flower, schizandra, skullcap, rhodiola, and cordyceps have been scientifically shown to produce a gentle calming effect on the whole physiology, support the adrenal glands and healthy blood chemistry, and enhance the body's ability to resist the ravages of stress.
Fish oil supplements help. Several studies have established a clear association between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and depression. Other studies have shown that countries with a high level of fish consumption have fewer cases of depression.3-6
• Exercise, a balanced diet, relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and massage, visualization, and positive thinking all help soothe the mind and body and produce a sense of well being. Meditation has been used the world over for thousands of years. Now, based on scientific research published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke (March 3, 2000), we know that Transcendental Meditation (TM) not only reduces stress, but that it may reduce arteriosclerosis and the risk of heart attack and stroke as well.6, 7
• Mental health professionals can offer a variety of therapies to help alleviate symptoms and re-engage the patient in normal activity.

1. R. S. Wilson, A. W. Capuano, P. A. Boyle, G. M. Hoganson, L. P. Hizel, R. C. Shah, S. Nag, J. A. Schneider, S. E. Arnold, D. A. Bennett. Clinical-pathologic study of depressive symptoms and cognitive decline in old age. Neurology, 2014; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000715
2. Rush University Medical Center. (2014, July 30). Depression as a risk factor for dementia: Link is independent of dementia-related brain changes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 6, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140730161525.htm
3. Edwards, R., et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels in the diet and in red blood cell membranes of depressed patients. Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 48, March 1998, pp. 149-55
4. Hibbeln, Joseph R. Fish consumption and major depression. The Lancet, Vol. 351, April 18, 1998, p. 1213 (correspondence)
5. Hibbeln, Joseph R. and Salem, Norman. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: when cholesterol does not satisfy. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 62, July 1995, pp. 1-9
6. Castillo-Richmond, A. Schneider, RH.: et al. "Effects of stress reduction on carotid atherosclerosis in hypertensive African Americans." Stroke 31: 568–573, 2000.
7. Eppley, KR., Shear, J., Abrams, AJ. "Differential effects of relaxation techniques on trait anxiety: A meta-analysis," Journal of Clinical Psychology 45: 957-974, 1989.